Historians can learn a lot about a people by examining the stories that they tell about themselves to others. When people wish to communicate something about themselves, they will usually pick some elements from their past to share. These narratives are highly selective, not only in the elements that are chosen but also in the language used to describe them. Present concerns normally shape what people share about their past, leading to the axiom that memory usually has more to do with the present than with the past.
In the years and decades following Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto of 1890, the Latter-day Saints were challenged not only to transition doctrinally away from polygamy, but also to deal publicly with their polygamous past. It was also necessary to address the question of whether or not plural marriage had been considered necessary for salvation at an earlier date, especially in the time of Joseph Smith. As SC Taysom has shown, Latter-day Saints during much of the nineteenth century equated celestial marriage with plural marriage, and considered polygamy to be essential for salvation.
In 1894, just four years after the Manifesto, James E. Talmage was invited to the University of Michigan to lecture on the history of Mormonism. The lecture was later published serially as “The Story of Mormonism” in the Improvement Era and also as a book. In the lecture, Talmage narrated much of the history of the church, waiting until his conclusion to address polygamy. Talmage’s statement shows how at least one prominent Latter-day Saint at the time publicly represented Mormonism’s polygamous past to others.
But perhaps you censure me for having forgotton or for having intentionally omitted reference to what popular belief regards as the chief feature of “Mormonism,” the corner-stone of the structure, the secret of its influence over its members, and of its attractiveness to its proselytes, viz: the peculiarity of the “Mormon” institution of marriage. The Latter-day Saints were long regarded as a polygamous people. That plural marriage has been practiced by a limited proportion of the people, under sanction of Church ordinance, has never since the introduction of the system been denied. that plural marriage is a vital tenet of The Church is not true. What the Latter-day Saints call celestial marriage is characteristic of The Church, and is in very general practice; but of celestial marriage, plurality of wives was an incident, never an essential.
As a touch of irony, 1894 also saw the Temple Lot Case, where other prominent Mormons such as Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph F. Smith testified publicly that Joseph Smith had been a polygamist, illustrating that while some Mormons were downplaying their polygamous past, others were emphasizing its importance in other contexts.
 Stephen C. Taysom, “A Uniform and Common Recollection: Joseph Smith’s Legacy, Polygamy, and the Creation of Mormon Public Memory, 1852-2002,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 113-44.
 John R. Talmage, The Talmage Story: Life of James E. Talmage, Educator, Scientist, Apostle (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1972), 132.
 James E. Talmage, The Story and Philosophy of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1914), preface.
 James E. Talmage, “The Story of ‘Mormonism,'” Improvement Era 4, no. 12 (October 1901): 909.