This is the fourth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
The introduction of polygamy during Nauvoo has received plenty of attention. Starting with Fawn Brodie’s exploration of Joseph Smith’s dozens of wives, scholars ranging from Todd Compton, Richard Bushman, George Smith, Brian Hales, Martha Bradley-Evans, Lawrence Foster, and Merina Smith have offered interpretations of the complex topic. The paucity of solid contemporary documents and proliferation of problematic reminiscences–not to mention the presence of teenage brides and polyandrous unions–make it a briar patch for writers. However, a common theme has dominated much of the general narrative: Joseph Smith, either divinely appointed of personally driven, sought to extend his sacerdotal connections through plural marriages. Fellow male leaders, eager to please their prophet and capitalize on his teachings, entered their own polygamous marriages. This secretive practice drew outside ire whenever rumors leaked, but internally it caused solidarity and strengthened loyalty. In this traditional framework, Nauvoo polygamy revolved around power and confidence.
Laurel Ulrich’s treatment of polygamy in her new book, A House Full of Females, bucks this trend. The novelty of the practice, secrecy of its introduction, and uncertainty of its participants highlights a different theme: anxiety. In Chapter 4, the focus of this week’s post, Ulrich looks at how polygamy expanded in the hands of Smith’s closest followers in Nauvoo. Between July 1842 and December 1844, the number of polygamists grew from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to around twenty men and seventy-six women. Such numbers certainly brought growing pains. Ulrich seeks to capture the uncertainty of this experiment. As such, she eschews the later reminiscences which serve the bedrock of most scholarly treatments. “Autobiographies composed many years after the fact may exaggerate these sudden reversals,” she explains. These were events filled with confusion, ambition, and fear. Some were repulsed, but others were intrigued. Further, while many historians, critics, and apologists have focused on Smith’s own practice, Ulrich is more interested in those who surrounded the Prophet. This is a broader, and more complicated, story.
The leading characters of this chapter, William Clayton and the women he married, embody the ambiguities of this startling development. For Clayton, plural marriage provided a way to justify personal desires. Though married, he coveted a young woman, Sarah Crooks, whom she met while serving a mission in England. When he learned of the possibility of marrying Crooks, he wrote in his journal that it enabled him to obtain “a favor which I have long desired.” It seemed too good to be true. Worried that he might be pushing too hard, he sought assurance from the Prophet. “It is your privilege to have all the wives you want,” Smith returned. Clayton was provided the resources to help Crooks migrate from England. But Clayton was not satisfied with merely a second wife. While Crooks was in transit to Nauvoo, Clayton also married Margaret Moon, the younger sister of his first wife, Ruth. Clayton was ready to take advantage of his privileges.
But as Ulrich explains, things did not go smoothly. One can only imagine how each of these women reacted to his propositions. Things were complicated when Margaret, still quite young, had other suiters. Did Margaret return his affection? Clayton was never sure. Nor was he ever fully satisfied. After Crooks rejected his advances, Clayton approached a third Moon sister, Lydia, who was also courted by Smith himself. However, unlike the other Moon daughters, Lydia refused to enter a plural union. Clayton then turned his attention back to Margaret, whom he feared might choose a younger man over him. Eventually Margaret warmed to Clayton and even provided the first child born to a polygamous marriage. But that “happy” conclusion was far from assured. Throughout the entire courtship period, Clayton was in a constant state of worry. He worried about whether the women he was not sealed to were fully committed to him in turn. He worried about what Margaret and Ruth’s mother thought about these relationships. And finally, he worried about whether the Prophet approved of his actions. As Ulrich concludes,
Although William Clayton fits the model of a man who entered plural marriage because he was sexually attracted to multiple women, his diary suggests that he craved approval as much as sex. He wanted to be accepted not only by the women he loved, but by his hero Joseph Smith and by God.
Chapter 4 is a powerful exploration of the complex and contested nature of this supposedly well-known practice. As such, I’d argue it is the best depiction of Nauvoo polygamy yet written. At the very least, it captures the spirit of its uncertainty and anxiety. It puts flesh on the previous historiography’s previously dry skeleton.
A final note. One of the reasons Ulrich’s book was able to offer such a riveting account of polygamy in Nauvoo was she was granted full access to William Clayton’s diaries. That textual resource has a long history in the MHA world. The story of Clayton’s diaries in the past fifty years is full of stolen transcripts, published excerpts, and severely limited access. If you want an overview, read this exchange in Dialogue a couple decades ago. (I promise is a fascinating tale!) Though the Joseph Smith Papers Project was recently able to gain access for reference work while working on their Nauvoo volumes–you can find numerous references in Journals 2 and 3, as well as the Council of Fifty volume–the Clayton diaries remain closed to outside scholars. I don’t know why. Most of the “juicy” material is already out. All that’s still out of view is likely crucial insight on the social life of Mormon Nauvoo. I hope Ulrich is only the first of many historians who will eventually gain access to those diaries. Our treatments of Nauvoo will only benefit.