A Divinely Ordered Species of Eugenics

By March 5, 2008

Following the Manifesto of 1890 and the decline of officially-sanctioned plural marriages among the Latter-day Saints, many Mormons worked to construct explanations for the practice of polygamy. The discursive means used by Mormons to situate their peculiar institution in their past reveal insights into how Mormons saw themselves during the first decades of the twentieth century and how they wanted the world to perceive them. One strategy, highlighted here, was to downplay the significance of plural marriage in both practice and in doctrine. However, at the same time that this was occurring, many Mormons were arguing that polygamy had produced a large and righteous posterity, “racially” superior to other people born into monogamous families. B. H. Roberts presented one of the most insightful articulations of this narrative:

Plural wives among the Latter-day Saints, and first wives who consented to their husbands entering into these relations, accepted the institution from the highest moral and religious motives…that they might bear the souls of men under conditions that gave largest promise of improving the race and bringing forth superior men and women who shall lead the way to that higher state of things for which the world is waiting…its purpose was not earth-happiness, but earth-life discipline, undertaken in the interest of special advantages for succeeding generations of men. That purpose was to give to succeeding generations a superior fatherhood and motherhood, by enlarging the opportunities of men of high character, moral integrity, and spiritual development to become progenitors of the race; to give to women of like character and development a special opportunity to consecrate themselves to the high mission of motherhood. Race-culture, then, was the inspiring motive of the plural-wife feature of this revelation on marriage. It was in the name of a divinely ordered species of eugenics that the Latter-day Saints accepted plurality of wives (B.H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise in Theology, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed. [Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1996], 556-57).

Roberts was not the first to postulate that Latter-day Saint plural marriage would produce superior offspring. Susa Young Gates argued in 1907 that “it would be difficult to find a finer race of men and women, morally, mentally, and physically, than has been produced through that order of marriage.”[1] Josiah Edwin Hickman’s article “The Offspring of the Mormon People” was published in 1924 in the Journal of Heredity.[2] Gates and Hickman both argued that the Mormons were physically, as well as morally superior to other people. This may have been a result, as Kathleen Flake argued, of Protestant characterizations of the children of polygamous marriages as stunted and malformed. In 1902, the Improvement Era published a missionary’s tribute to his mother, which reveals that Mormons were still very conscious of criticisms of alleged Mormon polygamous deformities, charges which had been made for decades:

When I think of the sacrifices which you, my dear mother, have made for the gospel’s sake-the severing of your family ties, the losing the love of an only brother, and the trials incident to celestial marriage-I cannot help thinking, as I look upon your face, (picture) before me: there is one of the noble women of the earth, a faithful mother in Israel, destined to become a queen in the kingdom of our God.

Oh! mother! They talk about the degradation of the “Mormons,” and the corruption of the plural marriage system. But, as I look into your face, I see gentleness, love, joy and purity, depicted in every line that marks your features.

My heart swells with emotion as I tell the enquirer to look upon that picture-my mother-the plural wife of my father, than whom no sweeter, purer woman ever lived.

Such are not the features of immoral practices, sorrow or slavery; but the fruits of keeping the commandments of God. The results of plural marriages as manifest in the intelligence, physical strength as well as in the features of the offspring of these relations are, and ever will be, man’s ever-able testimonies against those who assume to criticise, oppose and condemn this divine law.[3]

Roberts however argues in the above quote that the motivation behind polygamy was to allow men and women of superior moral qualities to populate the earth, in preparation for the great destiny to come. Although he uses the words race and eugenics, no where does he imply that polygamy was intended to raise up seed that was physically superior to the rest of human kind. Roberts, however, is unclear as to how these moral traits were to be passed on. Were they to be inherited qualities, or were they to be acquired through instruction?

Note: While I am interested in the history of Mormon uses of eugenics, my primary interest here is in examining the inherently positive representations by Mormons after 1890 of their polygamous past (shaped by their participation in eugenics discourse) and how these positive representations should be understood in light of the trend of downplaying polygamy in other contexts. For a good summary of the overall history of Mormon participation in eugenics discourse, see the link to Sterling’s post in comment #1.


[1] Susa Young Gates, “A Message From a Woman of the Latter-day Saints to the Women of All the World,” Improvement Era 10, no. 5 (March 1907):

[2] Josiah Edwin Hickman, “The Offspring of the Mormon People,” Journal of Heredity 15 (1924): 55-68.

[3] A Missionary Boy, “Tribute to Mother,” Improvement Era 5, no. 3 (January 1902):

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation From the Archives Gender Memory


  1. George Q. Cannon and other 19th century figures vehemently defended the eugenic effect of polygamy. Stirling has a good write-up here, and the comments are great.

    I remember Talmage writing in Jesus the Christ about an intergenerational crescendo of the spirit, which is similar to the idea of superior moral traits.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 5, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

  2. Thanks for that link, J. Sterling really did a bang-up job with that post. He reproduced a variation of the TWL quote from the CHC that does seem to imply a physical dimension.

    ?It was in the name of a divinely ordered species of eugenics that Latter Day Saints accepted the revelation which included a plurality of wives. Polygamy would have afforded the opportunity of producing from that consecrated fatherhood and motherhood the improved type of man the world needs to reveal the highest possibilities of the race, that the day of the super man might come, and with him come also the redemption and betterment of the race.? (Comprehensive History?5:297, 1930 ed., first published in 1912).

    I’m intrigued by the reference to the “super man.” I’m not an expert on Nietzsche, but that sounds like it’s derivative of his writings.

    Comment by David G. — March 5, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

  3. David: Very Interesting post.

    From my research on the folklore of Plural Marriage, it is evident that these feelings still exist. However, it seems to be largely carried on only by those who descend from polygamist relationships. Out of those who believed polygamy was practice in order to raise a righteous seed, almost 90% of them had polygamist anscestors. There is definitely some family pride still going on in this regard.

    Comment by Ben — March 5, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

  4. Ben, thanks for that. I know that my own mother repeats this narrative quite often when discussing her own polygamous ancestry. I’ve heard that Pres. Hinckley repeated the narrative during a mission presidents conference during the 1990s, as he looked out over the audience and said that he marveled at the good that polygamy had produced. So any argument that Pres. Hinckley always downplayed polygamy is shortsighted, imo.

    Comment by David G. — March 5, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  5. There was a recent paper I kept meaning to look up and never did arguing that the demographic argument against polygamy was flawed. Anyone know what the argument was?

    Comment by Clark — March 5, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

  6. J.’s comment #1 and Ben’s #3 are actually directly tied together. George Q. Cannon’s descendants are clear evidence that plural marriage was successful in producing a superior race.

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

  7. Emily Kathrine Bates, a British traveler who visited Salt Lake City in the mid 1880s, wrote in her published travel narrative:

    One of the arguments for polygamy is that a fine healthy race can be produced by this means alone. I am bound to say that I saw no sufficient justification for the doctrine in the appearance of the Salt Lake City Mormons. As a rule, the men and women are hard-featured careworn and anxious-looking. . . . I never saw so many ?homely? (we should call them ugly) looking women in all my life. Polygamy must indeed be looked upon as a sacred duty to induce the men to take more than one wife from amongst them. (E. Katherine Bates, A Year in the Great Republic (London: Ward & Downey, 1887), 225).

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

  8. I worked as a research assistant for a short time, searching the archived official papers of John A. Widtsoe from his presidency of what was then the Utah Agricultural College (Utah State University now). I found several letters in that collection, wherein Widtsoe expressed approval for eugenics, including inviting speakers on the subject to address the student body. I wonder now if this was connected to the plural marriage justifications described above.

    Comment by Nick Literski — March 5, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  9. I?m intrigued by the reference to the ?super man.? I?m not an expert on Nietzsche, but that sounds like it?s derivative of his writings.

    No, I’m pretty sure it’s a reference to Kal-El.

    Comment by JKC — March 5, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

  10. JKC, that’s a bit anachronistic since Superman didn’t burst on the scene until 1933. Maybe Jerry Siegel was reading prominent Mormon writers of the day. Or maybe David was right that Roberts was borrowing from Nietzsche.

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

  11. Anyone have a copy of Truth Restored?

    Does the chapter on “Years of Endurance” contain this sentence?

    “Indications point to the fact that as a rule the children of polygamous marriages were superior physically and mentally.”

    Comment by Justin — March 5, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

  12. Polygamy must indeed be looked upon as a sacred duty to induce the men to take more than one wife from amongst them.

    Har! That’s just rude…

    Comment by Geoff J — March 5, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  13. Justin, I just checked Truth Restored (the 1979 Missionary Library version), and couldn’t find that quote.

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  14. Interesting. A few years ago I noted that it appeared in What of the Mormons? (1947).

    Comment by Justin — March 5, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

  15. My reading of the “superman” quote might be wrong, but it sounds to me like a reference to Christ. Though, I guess that Roberts might have been reading Nietzsche.

    Comment by Joel — March 5, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

  16. I don’t think Nietzche is among the books in the BH Roberts memorial libray (anyone got a BYU Studies edition of TWL? they’re listed in the back), though that doesn’t mean BH hadn’t read or wasn’ aware of Nietzche, though I don’t know that Nietzche was really that popular until a bit later (but I really don’t know).

    Susa Young Gates also published an article in the North American Review in which she asserts that it is a well-known fact that the children of polygamous families (ie, herself) were intellectually and physically superior to those of even monogamous Mormon families.

    Comment by Stan — March 5, 2008 @ 8:11 pm

  17. Stan: Nietzche is not listed in the appendix. Another possibility is that Roberts is getting Nietzche filtered through a work on Eugenics, but I know next to nothing about the eugenicists use of Nietzche.

    Comment by David G. — March 5, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  18. The tension you identify David is very interesting. It occurs to me that it might be productive to see how far into the twentieth century the eugenic argument against plural marriage extended. In the 19th century, lots of reports described the products of Mormon plural marriages as physically and mentally feeble. In defense, as you have noted, LDS defenders did not dismiss the premise of eugenics, but simply argued that the critics were completely wrong in their conclucions. It could be, if such reports of the continued genetic depletion of Mormons born to plural marriages persisted into the twentieth century, that the Mormons persisted in their standard defenses, even if that meant conjuring the specter of plural marriage at a time when they would prefer to let it die.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 5, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  19. I agree that is a needed study, as it would provide a great window into how Mormons and non-Mormons struggled after 1890 to control how Mormon polygamy would be remembered. It would also be instructive to see to what degree the arguments articulated in defense against eugenics-based attacks were transported into other contexts.

    Comment by David G. — March 5, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

  20. Kathryn Daynes has at least informally argued that the old saw about lower fertility rates in polygamy may be flawed. the standard, based on good work from a couple decades ago, suggests that per woman fertility declines in polygamy.

    Paul has some interesting data on bestializing/racializing Mormons, so this eugenics (which is clearly an outgrowth of prior eugenics arguments–Carmon Hardy has a handy list in his new anthology) should also be read as a response to bestialization (or racialization).

    This is also an absolutely fascinating twist on the old “my ancestors arrived on the Mayflower” mode of self-asserted superiority on the basis of lineage.

    vary the dates as you like. Mostly it’s Shaw and Nietzsche.

    Comment by smb — March 5, 2008 @ 10:21 pm


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