From the Archives: “Polygamy…is Conducive to Health, Ingelligence, and Longevity”, An 1885 Letter of George Reynolds on Ebay

By July 14, 2008

In my browsings on Ebay I came across something of a gem, what is apparently an original handwritten letter of George Reynolds, then secretary to President John Taylor. Though the price tag of $199 seems a little steep, the content is interesting. The text, as given in the item listing is as follows:

President’s Office

Church of Jesus Christ

Of

Latter Day Saints.

PO Box B. Salt Lake City, U. T. April 18th 1885

Mr. J. B. Farr

Wyandotte, Kansas

Dear Sir:

Your favor of 12 inst. to President John Taylor has been handed to me for reply.

Polygamy, or rather plural marriage, as taught and practiced in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is conducive to health, intelligence and longevity, because it is in accordance with the laws of man’s being. The Census of 1870 shows that in Utah the percentage of insane and idiotic was 5, in Massachussetts [sic] 23, in the District of Columbia 35, taking those three widely distant portions of our common country as examples. This is all the more favorable to Utah when we consider that one third of the population of the Latter-day Saints therein are under 8 years of age. But really plural marriage has not been in existence long enough for us to thoroughly judge its results, and I am not prepared to say what proportion of that 5 per cent of insane and idiotic were children of polygamists [sic] parents, or what the ratio was of the monogamic parentage. We keep no accurate statistics of these matters, but our opinion is that in all respects to those born in plural marriage are equal in all respects to those born under the best auspices in monogamy. Our children are healthy, robust and intelligent. There is no deterioration in the race as some talk of, but we believe an improvement. And so it should be; for if the laws of life as advocated by the Elders of our Church are observed, the progeny of the members of the Church, whether monogamous or polygamous, is sure to be benefitted [sic] thereby.

Yours very truly,

Geo. Reynolds

 

The letter was sent to Wyandotte, Kansas, and now, almost 125 years later, is being sold one hour’s drive away in Lexington, Missouri. How many of these types of documents remain undiscovered, squirreled away in basements, attics, and trunks? Was a copy retained in a letterbook that may be housed at the Church archives, or is this a totally unique item?

 

What strikes you about the letter’s content?

PS: A rather unique and also overpriced Sidney Rigdon piece is also on sale.


Comments

  1. Good find, Jared, even if you couldn’t fork out two hundred dollars for it ;).

    I find this letter to be a great example of “rational supernaturalism.” You have a supernatural idea (the revelation on plural marriage) being proven to be true in a very rational way (the Utah population has a very small amount of “insane and idiodic” cases when compared with other states).

    It also exemplifies the Saints’ notion that obedience to spiritual commandments will result in, among other things, temporal blessings.

    Great stuff.

    Comment by Ben — July 14, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

  2. [Content Edited for Clarity]

    Kathleen Weber

    Comment by Kathleen Weber — July 14, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  3. “Only men free of the disease could take plural wives, certainly by John Taylor’s time.”

    I don’t remember well enough off hand if I’ve read anything about health requirements for entering into polygamy. Can anyone refresh my memory? A refrence?

    Comment by Jared T — July 14, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

  4. Jared, KW is an unstable person who has been surfacing on LDS blogs lately where the topics of MoMeMas and plur. mar. come up. (I think she has google alert or something similar set to flag these topics, which is why I’m trying to disguise them in this comment. I’ll understand your deletion of this comment, too.) Fantasy rate is astronomically high, attempts to discuss are fruitless.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 14, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

  5. Ardis, you’re comments are not delete-worthy, period. Thanks for the heads up.

    Ben, agreed.

    Comment by Jared T — July 14, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

  6. Jared, your editing skills are unparalleled!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 14, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  7. LOL, truly impressive, Jared.

    Comment by David G. — July 14, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

  8. Jared, the papers from John Taylor’s administration are not open to research yet so I can’t check for this specific letter. However, I have gathered some letters from that collection that have escaped through the cracks from time to time, including some from 1885, and believe that there is a very high likelihood that a letterpress copy of this letter was retained. It should be found on CR 1_20, reel 8 (that’s a collection of First Presidency Letterbooks, but the volume number for my 1885 letters isn’t recorded on the transcription).

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 14, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

  9. If it is in Taylor’s FP Letterpress, check Scott Kenney’s papers, Box 2. He transcribed most everything in the Letterpress in his peculiar abbreviated style. He often also only included partial letters. Still, it is invaluable to have even that much access.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 14, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

  10. #6, & 7 Hehe.
    #8, tell me about “yet”…wishful thinking or statute of limitations?
    #9, agreed, J. Next time I’m there, I’ll have to check it.

    Comment by Jared T — July 14, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

  11. 10 (re 8) – Well, I have hopes that someday this will be prepped for public use. I would dearly love to continue my reading of incoming correspondence. Of course, the way they’ve been letting all the professional staff retire without replacement, pretending that missionaries are capable of picking up the slack, puts the day of access off so far that I doubt I’ll still be around to see it.

    Don’t let me start on MISSIONARIES …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 14, 2008 @ 8:34 pm

  12. Um, the cool dude smilie was supposed to be an “8” followed by a closing parenthesis.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 14, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  13. So what is the likely veracity of these pieces of “history”? I am always concerned by ebay and the sense that I am being screwed.

    Comment by Jon W — July 14, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

  14. There is no deterioration in the race as some talk

    Jared, this sounds like a direct response to Dr. Roberts Bartholow’s argument in a U.S. Senate report, subsequently reprinted in a variety of medical journals, that polygamy was giving rise to a new degenerate, deformed, and degraded “race.” George Q. Cannon similarly responded in talks to the Bartholow report, a fact that lends credibility to the letter in my mind.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — July 14, 2008 @ 10:09 pm

  15. Paul I think I mentioned it previously to you, but a few travel writers who visited Utah also made disparaging remarks about polygamy producing a degraded race.

    Comment by Christopher — July 14, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

  16. [Edited for Clarity]

    The Taylor letter mentions the symptoms of
    Syphillus specificaly as follows:

    The Census of 1870 shows that in Utah the percentage of insane and idiotic was 5, in Massachusetts 23, in the District of Columbia 35, taking those three widely distant portions of our common country as examples. This is all the more favorable to Utah when we consider that one third of the population of the Latter-day Saints therein are under 8 years of age. But really plural marriage has not been in existence long enough for us to thoroughly judge its results, and I am not prepared to say what proportion of that 5 per cent of insane and idiotic were children of polygamists [sic] parents, or what the ratio was of the monogamic parentage.

    [Edited for Clarity]

    Why don’t you have Google Alerts, if you
    are interested enough to comment on my opinions. I want to ask what rock you crawled out from under, but do not use
    such language on the web. [Retained for Irony]

    Since this letter regards Census information, and does not go much beyond that, unless we are talking about price.
    Why discuss it if STD’s often in families
    of victims you find offensive enough to trash me. I have 3 years experience in
    this area, for two I worked with a world
    class virologist.

    [Edited for relevancy]

    Kathleen

    Comment by Kathleen Weber — July 15, 2008 @ 1:42 am

  17. Kathleen, the issue here is not fundamentalism, it’s 1880s attitudes toward polygamy. If you want to prove Ardis wrong, please post coherently, relatively concisely, and on topic. I asked a specific question about one of your assertions back in #3. Also, in the excerpt you give in #16 you say it specifically mentions the symtoms of syphilis. Elaborate. You see, my expertise is not in virology, and I only see two words that can be possibly construed as symptomatic, “idiotic” and “insane”, and I think that there might potentially be a lot of causes for such a diagnosis. What makes you so sure the cause is syphilis?

    You can answer the questions with some basis in evidence and be germane to the topic [ie, have an intelligent conversation], or we will have to place your comments in moderation. This is your only warning.

    Comment by Jared T — July 15, 2008 @ 8:55 am

  18. Paul and Chris,

    Great points. It seems that someone posted about this before… 🙂

    I think a comment you make there well contextualizes the George Reynolds letter here at issue:

    The Mormon body, thus, became a battleground upon which the LDS hierarchy and the federal government grappled to inscribe very different values, laws, and morality.

    Comment by Jared T — July 15, 2008 @ 9:13 am

  19. The question of any connection between polygamy and bettering/degeneracy of offspring — to say nothing about sanity, coherence, capacity, rationality, emotional stability, or choice of domestic roofing material, of course — also came up in the 1870 debates between Orson Pratt and the Senate chaplain, John P. Newman.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 15, 2008 @ 1:01 pm

  20. One feature of faithful Mormon blogs I’ve found disturbing is the deletion of comments people find unsettling. Yes, free speech can be unpleasant at times. And Thomas Jefferson’s notion that the best ideas will win in an open marketplace of ideas can be so bothersome when revealed truth doesn’t always seem to be the best idea available — and by any rational standard, God’s revelations sound plum idiotic or insane. So read this while it’s still here.

    As Carmon Hardy’s definitive study of plurality reveals, eugenic arguments to justify polygamy reach all the way back to Joseph Smith’s 17 July 1831 Revelation, in William Wines Phelps to Brigham Young, 12 Aug. 1861, Revelations Collection, LDS Archives.

    This despite a recent FAIR blog claiming there is no evidence of any revelation about polygamy from Joseph Smith before the one cannonized in the D&C.

    Eugenics is now deservedly regarded as sordid intellectual tripe, in large part because of its real-world role in justifying the systematic Nazi persecution of Jews, Roma, gays, and “mental defectives.” As Hardy points out, one particularly bright Mormon defender might be credited with introducing the concept to Western thought:

    “Most scholars have long believed that the eugenics movement began in 1883 with Charles Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, but George Q. Cannon (1827–1901), one of Utah’s most influential nineteenth-century leaders, espoused many of the same ideas twenty-six years earlier.” You can read all about it in George Q. Cannon, “Improvement of Our Species,” Western Standard 2:22, 7 Aug. 1857 [2/4–6]. You can find it in Hardy’s B. Carmon Hardy, ed., Doing the Works of Abraham, Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (Norman: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2007), which Marty Bradley called “as close as we’ve got to a bible on Mormon polygamous practice.”

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — July 15, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

  21. Will, Stirling had a write up of Eugenics in Mormonism at BCC some time ago. As it relates to the Phelps letter, I’m fairly certain that Hardy contextualizes it as Phelps’s reconstruction based on memory, no? Phelps was quite used to writing in the voice of Joseph Smith.

    As to your sardonic approach to comment moderation, I’ll let the folks here defend their possibilities. However, as someone that you would likely consider faithful and also one who manages a blog, I have no problem deleting comments from the spammer, the unstable, and the jerk. It isn’t censorship, these people are free to speak on their own sites and my blog is my party.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 15, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  22. And I thought it was only those pesky faithful Mormons who had a persecution complex.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 15, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  23. I’m glad to see we are condemned for not being “mainstream and orthodox” from the one side and too “faithful” from the other. Maybe the middle is a respectable place.

    Comment by Ben — July 15, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

  24. One feature of faithful Mormon blogs I’ve found disturbing is the deletion of comments people find unsettling.

    As a non-professional-historian reader of this and other Mormon-themed blogs, I would like to state that one of the reasons that I do continue to read them is because of the policy of deletion. If every time I tried to read JI or T&S or whatever, I had to wade through a slough of mindless diatribes against Brigham Young, comments about the sexual proclivities of the pioneers, random criticisms of the current church written by people of who-knows-what experience and bias, and advertisments for pharmaceuticals, I would simply stop reading. Just like I’ve stopped reading the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune message boards. With a policy of deletion comes a measure of accountability for what one says in an otherwise anonymous form of conversation.

    And so this comment is pertinent to the discussion, I will also say that from what I know of polygamy as practiced in my ancestry (7 couples were practicing polygamy out of 32 ancestral couples who were members of the church and married during the polygamous period), they were almost to a person rather healthy and long-lived. Including the women, which at that point in history was not something to always take for granted.

    Comment by Researcher — July 15, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

  25. On the other hand, I’m glad you don’t remove readers’ comments in which the infinitives tend to regularly be split. (Or did I mean “to be regularly”! Yikes!)

    Comment by Researcher — July 15, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  26. Look, anyone who has read this blog with any attention at all knows that contrary opinions are expressed all the time. What few deletions there are typically result from posts that impede the nature of the civil give and take. Claiming otherwise is either ignorance or demagoguery

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 15, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

  27. This is an interesting find. My first thoughts were that the evidince is very broad and them corrolating health to polygamy is a VERY big stretch. Weren’t they practicing the Word of Wisdom by this time? That’s probably a better corrolation to health.

    Also, I thought it was interesting that health was an issue for the kids that got taken away from the polygamist compound a couple months back…they got sick after they left the compound. Check out the story here:
    http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Germs/story?id=4633483

    Comment by Ama — July 16, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

  28. While in the 1880’s it was very bad to get drunk or drink hard liquer, unless you were a Stake President or General Authority, the lesser infractions of the Word of Wisdom weren’t generally a huge concern. And even then, many General Authorities still occasioned a drink (either alcohol, coffee or tea) here or there. While it became more and more emphasized with time, it wasn’t until the Grant administration that it was considered a test of fellowship.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 16, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

  29. Ama,
    You’re right that the evidentiary base for the eugenics argument is shaky. As others have noted, this was really a discourse that involved the back and forth between Mormons and their critics. One side argued that polygamy produced mentally inferior and physically atrophied children and the other side argued that plural marriage produced superior genetic offspring. The better response on the part of Mormons of the time would have been to reject the premise that plural marriage had anything at all to do with the genetic makeup of the offspring. The Word of Wisdom was not regularly observed or rigorously enforced, although it was occasionaly the subject of emphatic sermons, until the early 20th century. Adherence to the Word of Wisdom (with the particular emphases that are now current) was made a requirement to hold a temple recommend around 1921.

    ETA: Sorry Staples, I posted before I saw your response.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 16, 2008 @ 9:13 pm

  30. First, a contribution. While sadly, like other First Presidency materials at LDS Archives postadting Brigham Young, “the papers from John Taylor’s administration are not open to researchers,” they have been in the past–and, I’d bet, will be again one of these days, since such censorship does more harm than good. But since the barn door was once open, the horse is long gone, and in the case of the John Taylor Papers, they can be found in typescripts Raymond Taylor made for his brother in the 1970s, now available as The John Taylor Family Papers (1883–1994), Ms0050, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Plus, the Taylors published some of these materials as “John Taylor papers: records of the last Utah pioneer.”

    Now, a comment. I don’t read any blog very often, and I may well be an ignorant demagogue, but the defense–nay, celebration–of censorship I perceive in several of the earlier comments bother me a lot. I’ll give Jared some slack, since his comments indicate he is editing, or rather “deleting comments from the spammer, the unstable, and the jerk” more often than censoring. But there’s the rub: whatever Kathleen Weber’s comments may have been, they were not “Content Edited for Clarity”: they are gone entirely. I have no way of judging whether she was an unstable spammer or jerk or simply said something that offended the very delicate sensibilities of the very delicate.

    So, Jared, if you want to be taken seriously as a historian–and you show great dedication and promise in that regard–use your powers wisely. Otherwise, you’ll sound more like the thousands of Chinese government bureaucrats who purge their countrymen’s access to the internet of opinions that don’t reflect well on those wise leaders who exercise the Mandate of Heaven.

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — July 18, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

  31. Will, not having seen the register for the Taylor papers, and remembering that Samuel Taylor had said in 1982 that he didn’t know where the John Taylor diaries were, do you happen to know if they were subsequently found and added to the UU collection? Samuel indicated that the last he knew of them was B. H. Roberts using them in the early 20th century. Do you also happen to know whether the transcribed correspondence (1837-1887) in the collection is Taylor’s personal correspondence or the FP letterpress?

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 18, 2008 @ 6:18 pm

  32. Will,
    For the record I think it’s clear that you are neither ignorant nor a demagogue. But it is a bit irksome to be tarred with the brush of censorship and to be accused of undermining the marketplace of ideas based on a single instance of justifiable blog editing. This is particularly true because the JI welcomes intellectual debate and we quite regularly find ourselved criticised for being too liberal or too conservative. It may not help much, but I can attest that the posts that were deleted were incoherent. I have no idea if I would have found them offensive to my sensibilities because they were absolutely indecipherable.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 18, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

  33. #30 Neither the New York Times nor National Geographic nor Time Magazine nor Smithsonian nor Sunstone nor Meridian nor the Deseret News nor the Salt Lake Tribune nor Pravda nor Stern nor any other newspaper or magazine prints every letter or comment they receive.

    There is a huge difference between editorial discretion and censorship.

    *

    And so I remain on topic: one of my polygamous ancestors died in his 50s of diabetes. One died in his 50s of typhoid fever. The others lived into their 70s, 80s, or 90s.

    They also had remarkably low infant mortality rates; in most cases it was zero.

    Comment by Researcher — July 18, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

  34. Sorry; I posted on top of SC Taysom’s comment.

    Comment by Researcher — July 18, 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  35. Will, thanks for the note on the Taylor papers at the Archives.

    It looks like a distinction is not being made that should be. The words “deleting comments from the spammer, the unstable, and the jerk” are not mine, though they are quoted as though they were.

    Thank you for your compliment, though I think we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree on what constitutes “censorship”. I disagree with how you’re construing this, and I stand by my exercise of editorial discretion.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 19, 2008 @ 1:29 am

  36. I support the statement about “deleting comments from the spammer, the unstable, and the jerk” and the editing and deleting decisions made thus far on this thread.

    Comment by Edje — July 19, 2008 @ 7:50 am

  37. “deleting comments from the spammer, the unstable, and the jerk”

    I should also add that though not my words in this instance, I support them in principle.

    Comment by Jared T — July 19, 2008 @ 9:47 am

  38. When I read the now expunged comment, I had no idea what the lady was talking about. It seemed like complete jiberish. I wasn’t offended by it, nor did I think that she was challenging the “revealed word of God” or anything like that. It just plain did not make sense. So like Edje, I support Jared in his expunging exercises.

    Comment by David G. — July 19, 2008 @ 10:23 am

  39. This thread needs to be cross-referenced with Kristine’s On the Seductiveness of Indignation at BCC: “Complaints against the machinations of culture [or blog administrators] today have become as poisonous as the things complained of. This is not surprising. Resentment and indignation are feelings dangerous to the possessor and to be sparingly used.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 19, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  40. Jared,

    The John Taylor diaries are not in the UofU’s collection: Bitton lists a few short autobiographies in his bibliography, one at the Bancroft and one published item. If B. H. Roberts using them in the early 20th century.

    Ray Taylor transcribed what he identified as the “John Taylor Letter File,” at least on the letters I copied. It consisted of multiple folders, so it wasn’t part of the FP letterpress copybooks.

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — July 19, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  41. Sorry, I inadvertently cut part of the previous comment:

    If B. H. Roberts used them in the early 20th century, I’m confident they are still in the church’s possession, though perhaps not in the Historical Department collections.

    Comment by Will Bagley — July 19, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

  42. Will,

    Again, thanks for the information. I’ll be interested to check the Taylor files at the U in the near future.

    Comment by Jared T — July 19, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

  43. Hi. Good job. This is a great post. Thanks!

    Comment by William — April 2, 2009 @ 1:27 am


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