Continuing on a previous post from earlier this week, I would now like to discuss a specific example of Mormon folklore. In preparation for the Folklore Society of Utah Conference this Saturday, I have collected close to 100 interviews of college-aged students regarding the practice of polygamy. I have discovered that as a result of the Church being virtually silent when it comes to the purposes of polygamy in authoritative discourse and writings, the most common way of learning about it is through folklore. This has lead to a wide diversity on when it was initiated, why it was practiced, and what will happen with it concerning the future.
In my interviews, I asked the following questions: Are you a descendant from a polygamist marriage? Why were you told polygamy was practiced? When did polygamy start? When/why did it end? Will polygamy be restored before the millennium? Will polygamy be practiced in heaven? From my research, here are some of the most interesting findings.
1. 62% of those interviewed said that it was practiced in order to give every widow a husband. Out of those who responded with this reason, 20% specifically mentioned that it was needed because of the many men killed during Missouri and Illinois persecutions. While this does not come as a shock, it does reinforce the idea that we try to make comforting reasons for discomforting practices. After reviewing the many responses to this answer, I have come up with four possible ideas why this is the predominant reason given for polygamy.
A. It eliminates the chance that it was introduced because of sexual desire. The Mormon Church gives a lot of emphasis on moral purity, so the accusation that polygamy was practiced because the leaders were sex-driven is not very appealing to us as a community. In order to keep early Church leaders appearing spotless and worthy of the great acclamation they receive, we reason that their practice of plural marriage must have been based on demographic, and not sexual, reasons.
B. It makes early leaders more charitable and service-oriented. When faced with the problem of many women left widowed, and therefore unsupported, the leaders took upon themselves the burden of taking care of these poor women. With the motto of not leaving any worthy saint behind, they made sure that every person was taken care of. Therefore, this makes those who took an extra wife appear laudably service-driven, as opposed to cunningly sex-driven.
C. It reinforces the view that the early Church was a group which was highly persecuted. Similar to the Puritan’s Jeremiad stance that their trials were proof of their chosen-ness by God, the Mormons felt that they must be God’s restored gospel because of all the opposition being thrown at them, obviously led by Satan himself. The practice of polygamy then was a necessary result from the situation the Saints were put into because of the violent bigotry surrounding them. This way, the blame for polygamy should not rest upon the saintly leaders, but rather upon the ungodly persecutors.
D. It reflects the Church’s doctrine regarding the necessity of marriage. In order to achieve the highest glory in the next world, it is necessary for a person to be sealed to a spouse. Therefore, polygamy, no matter how unorthodox it is, provides women an opportunity to be sealed in order to achieve all possible blessings in the next life.
2. The background of a person largely determines how they are introduced to the history of polygamy. Out of those I spoke with, 44% were descendants of polygamy, 27% were not descendants, and a surprising 29% did not know if they were a descendant or not. One of the biggest differences between these groups was how they were introduced to the Principle. 70% of descendants were introduced through the family, as opposed to 15% of non-descendants who were introduced through this means. In total, out of all those who were introduced in a familial setting, 83% were descendants.
3. The background of a person also largely determines why a person believes it was practiced. Out of those who said that it was practiced because it is the celestial form of marriage, 71% were descendants. Also, out of those who said that it was to raise righteous seed, over 80% were descendants. This possibly shows that those who descend from polygamy take more pride in its practice. This idea is backed up by the fact that the large majority of non-descendants said that it was practiced for economic or demographic reasons, as shown by the 80% who said that it was to provide husbands for widows.
4. The responses to whether polygamy will be restored in this life and whether it will be practiced in heaven exemplifies how folklore can influence the majority of the church. Even though there has not been any authoritative statements (that I can find anyway) saying there is even a remote possibility that polygamy will be practiced again before the millennium, 20% said that they believed that there would be.
5. The study has shown, and this is the troubling part to me, how firmly people believe in their reasons. 95% of those interviewed gave only one reason and one reason only to why it was practiced. Although they gave different reasons, those different reasons were the ONLY reasons they believed polygamy was practiced. Most even tried to qualify their beliefs by saying things like “I have heard it from someone in authority that it was because,” or “Everyone knows that it was because,” or even “it is completely obvious that it was because,” leaving no room for another reason to be possible. I fear that limiting the reasons like this leads to difficulties later on when they are faced with facts which contradict their previous beliefs.
What has been your experience on this subject? Are there other major factors that I am overlooking? Am I placing too much emphasis on one aspect rather than another? Am I reading too much into this?