Last Summer I had the privilege to work for the Charles H. Redd Center for Western Studies at BYU, researching the LDS reaction to the Manifesto of 1890.[i] I thoroughly enjoyed sifting through hundreds of journals, diaries and autobiographies at different archives in Utah, searching for the raw emotion that I expected would be associated with the jarring social, doctrinal, procedural, and theological changes that I associate with the Manifesto.
You’ll have to wait until MHA 2013 to hear more about the main themes in LDS reactions to the Manifesto (shameless plug), but I wanted to share two women’s reactions to Wilford Woodruff’s decision to end plural marriage for the institutional Church. [ii] Mormon women generally fell into two schools of thought on the Manifesto:
- How could God do this? I/we have sacrificed so much to practice plural marriage, and it was all for naught.
- It was time for polygamy to end, so God instructed Wilford Woodruff to do so.
These prevailing attitudes teach us valuable lessons about polygamy, but also the faith of the women who expressed their feelings of betrayal or apathy 123 years ago.
Lorena Eugenia Washburn Larsen: After dinner that evening Mr. Young opened his newspaper to the Conference news and there was the Manifesto which had been given in conference by President Woodruff. We were all greatly astonished and we discussed it for some time. I could not believe that the Authorities of the Church had given up plural marriage, as it had been called the crowning principal [sic] of the Gospel, and it has been such a sacrifice on the part of many young women to go into that order of marriage…my husband went out and talked with them about the Manifesto…It seemed impossible that the Lord would go back on a principal which had caused so much sacrifice, heartache and trial before one could conquer ones [sic] carnel [sic] self, and live on that higher plane and love ones [sic] neighbor as ones [sic] self. My husband walked out without saying a word, and as he walked away I thought, oh yes, it is easy for you, you can go home to your other family and be happy with her, and then while I must be like Hager [sic] sent away. My anguish was inexpressible, and a dense darkness took hold of my mind. I thought that if the Lord and the Church Authorities had gone back on the principal, there was nothing to any part of the Gospel. I fancied I would see myself and my children, and many other splendid women and their children turned adrift, and our only purpose in entering it, had been more fully to serve the Lord. I sank down on our bedding and wished in my anguish that the earth would open and take me and my children in. The darkness seemed impenetrable.”
The second: Victoria Hancock Jackson: “The Lord told President John Taylor, when most of the Church leaders were yielding to U.S. demands of plural marriage abolishment, “I have not revoked that law, nor will I.” He also told them that he would fight their battles if they lived worthy. But the law was dragged into the gutter. Old men swapped daughters, sex weakness predominated in many cases. Some men neglected present wives with children and were captivated by a younger face. Although there was order to the law marriage being far above the looseness of many, yet who can blame the lord for allowing plural marriage to be discontinued.”[iii]
I have grappled with the implications of these two particular reactions and the broader attitudes they represent for months. The most interesting aspect of the Manifesto, in terms of how Mormons, particularly Mormon women, reacted to its release, is the lack of soteriology associated with the practice.
Polygamy was perhaps the most visible part of living 19th century Mormonism. Women showed that their faith with their wedding vows, as well as their place in the pew on Sundays. Perhaps because of this visible act of faith, I expected polygamy to be discussed more fully in women’s private diaries and memoirs in terms of its theological merits. My research of the Manifesto has shown little if any attention paid to a forfeiture of blessings after mortality associated with practicing plural marriage.
I grew up reading the diaries of my grandfather who was imprisoned in the 1880s for practicing plural marriage, in which he associated his conviction that God required him to practice polygamy for his exaltation. I have also read the talks from the Journal of Discourses that focus on the salvific requirements of plural marriage (even if it was merely to believe that it was a divinely given commandment), and I am still puzzled by the lack of recorded feeling or discussion about whether or not it was required for exaltation.
While plural marriage will continue to be debated and discussed in Mormon History, I hope to see future studies of plural marriage to include the liturgical aspects of the practice, not so much the covenants attached, but the motives and feelings associated with those who practiced the Principle. What did plural marriage mean on a personal level? What lessons and themes can we as Mormon Historians draw from those feelings?
[ii] By my count, less than 15% of the diaries and autobiographies I read made any mention of the Manifesto. In my estimation, more than 80% of the diaries and autobiographies I read discussed the prosecution of polygamists from of the 1880s at length.
[iii] MS 1906, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.