Answers to First 3 Questions About Polygamy from JI’s Readers

By October 28, 2014

Here is the first, in a series, of answers to historical questions about polygamy, as a result of the LDS Church’s new Gospel Topics essays on plural marriage.

Let us know if you have more questions here.

Without further ado, here are the first three questions.

“Where are the best sources (books) to go to learn about pre-Utah polygamy? Has pre-Utah polygamy been heavily mined by scholars?”

Pre-Utah polygamy has been addressed by many of Mormon History’s best and brightest. To start:

  • Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 323-327, 437-446, 490-499, 526-27.
  • John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 88-98 (80-110).
  • Samuel M. Brown, In Heaven as It Is On Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, ), 145-169 (read intro {3-14} to book to understand the Brown’s framework and methodology).
  • Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 64-66 (Fanny Alger), and 95-156.
  • Todd Compton: In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997).

In selecting recommended books, we tried to pick books that provided a good general overview of Mormon polygamy and that foregrounded the experience of Mormon women. Although there have been a lot of books published in Mormon history on the practice of polygamy, most of them have debated how many wives Joseph Smith or other church leaders had. The detailed books that have resulted from this debate can overwhelming both for the generalist and for the specialist. They also tend to lose sight of the individual women involved in these relationships. Polygamy becomes just another story about men. The following books are not without their flaws, but we feel that they move in the direction of asking what polygamy was like for Mormon women.

Do we have any knowledge of who the angel was that told Joseph to practice polygamy? Do we know what the angel said or if he/she quoted a scripture?

In the 20+ accounts from 9 witnesses, none identified the angel or the angel’s gender. The earliest account, probably transcribed in 1853, does not quote the any words from the angel they describe, much less any scripture. Brian Hales’ work, linked above, has a nifty chart that quotes each of the accounts at the end of the article.

“What information exists about the “Curse of Eve”? I’ve heard it referenced by Emma Smith in the context of asking to be released from it right before Joseph’s death. I also heard that, in the Utah period, Eliza R Snow believed that women could overcome the “Curse of Eve” by submitting themselves to their husbands in this life.”

  • Boyd Jay Peterson, “Redeemed from the Curse Placed upon Her:’ Dialogic Discourse on Eve in the Women’s Exponent, Journal of Mormon History 40, no. 1 (2014), 135-174.
  • Zenaida, “Emma’s Blessing,” The Exponent, originally published September 25, 2008,

Here’s what one expert on the “Curse of Eve” said in response to our questions:

“The idea of that humans needed to free themselves from the curse of Adam and Eve was really common in early Mormon texts. Men could do it by creating the Garden of Eden again, plowing the land and making it fertile. (Like one can really make Utah into Missouri!) There are three parts of Eve’s curse: that she’ll have pain in childbearing, be subject to her husband, and that she’ll have desire for him. The part of the curse that women spoke of most often was the “desire” part, one that we don’t even think of as a curse today. But for a woman practicing polygamy, the curse of having to share your husband is a big deal. And the way to redeem yourself from the curse, tragically, was to practice polygamy.”

We will continue to answer questions as we receive them and have time to answer them. We sincerely appreciate those who offered insight and opinions to make these posts possible.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Joey.

    Comment by Saskia T — October 28, 2014 @ 11:55 am

  2. Sorry, J. Stuart, but your answer to No. 1 was a big FAIL. How can you ignore Hales’ 3 volume Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. Even Todd is impressed by it. The question wasn’t what was polygamy like for women in those days. Brian’s book certainly doesn’t really cover that as well as those on the list, but the chronology and practice are important. Whether you agree with Hales’ conclusions or not, you have to recommend the evidence itself. As in your Answer to Question 2, Hales’ books cover almost everything in almost excruciating detail.

    Comment by Terry H — October 28, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

  3. Terry: attempting to list “best” sources is always a subjective game. Hales’s series on the topic is very important to the field, but I think it is reasonable for someone not to include it in the top-5; for others, I’m sure they would include it. Personally, I don’t think I’d replace one of those books for Hales, but I’d certainly suggest it for further reading.

    And since it’s an article, I’d happily add Spencer Fluhman’s fabulous article on Helen Mar to the list of 5. Very readable, approachable, and crucial.

    Comment by Ben P — October 28, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

  4. Just a point of clarification: These answers are not solely written by J Stuart. They are the collective effort of the blog’s roster.

    Comment by Admin — October 28, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

  5. “The question wasn?t what was polygamy like for women in those days.”

    I admit to being sort of confused as to how one could reasonably expect “to learn about pre-Utah polygamy” without thoroughly engaging the experience of women involved in it. Your failure to recognize that is a big FAIL, Terry.

    Comment by Christopher — October 28, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

  6. Terry,

    I must admit as a women’s historian I find your response disheartening. Joseph Smith’s decision to marry multiple women, including fourteen-year-old girls, is every bit as much about their lives and experiences as it is Joseph’s. Joseph’s story has been told over and over again. Theirs hasn’t. And, while I respect Brian’s work, it is quite detailed and can be overwhelming for those who want a broad overview. These responses are intended to partially pastoral, and for most of the people who are bothered by polygamy, it’s not the minutiae that bothers him, it’s thinking about what polygamy meant for the men and women who lived it. For those people, I think the above books are a better entry into thinking about Mormon polygamy than Hales.

    Comment by Amanda HK — October 28, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

  7. Another good place to look for women’s experience in Nauvoo polygamy is Marti Bradley’s The Four Zinas. And don’t forget George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy: … But We Called it Celestial Marriage. Both are excellent overviews.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 28, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

  8. Gary, Thanks for recommending those two books. They are great additional resources.

    Comment by Amanda — October 28, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Terry: As was mentioned by our admin, I didn’t write the paragraph you found so offensive. The comments are for opinions, so yours is welcome and valued, so long as you refrain from accusatory language. I haven’t read Hales personally, but have enjoyed listening to podcasts he has been a guest on. Like you said, the evidence he has accumulated is staggering. Hales’ 3 volume work is an important work but we have some reservations about his methodology and interpretations. Thus we are hesitant to place his works among those listed above. Our list is a starting point, not an end-all-be-all.

    Amanda: Amen.

    Gary: Absolutely correct. Thanks for reminding us!

    Comment by J Stuart — October 28, 2014 @ 6:12 pm

  10. 4 Zinas is a great view into the experience of polygamy. Daynes’ brief intro is also useful, even though her overall book is about later polygamy. Cooper, Promises Made to the Fathers makes some useful contextual/theological contributions, although he’s not focused on the thick of the Nauvoo experience.

    In some respects, Hales and George Smith represent opposite ideological poles of a literature that operates orthogonally to academic history. I’m not sure that either of them would prove terribly useful for an LDS individual trying to process the documents on the basis of academic contextualization. (Not trying to stir up any angry feelings, just make a taxonomic observation.)

    Comment by smb — October 28, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

  11. I asked the first question. Thanks for answering!

    I own RSR and the first of Hale’s books, but that is it.
    Need to read more.

    Comment by Katherine — October 28, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

  12. All above, perhaps I was a little strong in my language and can clarify. (1) J.Stuart @9. That is exactly right. However, I do believe the methodology is correct. Hales weighs all the sources, explains why he feels some are given more weight than others and then it is his “interpretations” based on that weight that people can (and often should) have differences with. As to Gary’s recommendations @ 7, we should use the same methodology there to make our own conclusions about the “interpretations”. smb@11 is exactly right. Hales and Smith are at opposite poles, with Bushman and Compton more toward the middle.

    As to Christopher @5 and Amanda @6, the question was where to learn about pre-Utah polygamy. I recognize that the women’s experience could be part of that and Todd’s book certainly emphasizes that. However, the truth often lies in the details as it is said and regardless of your view of his “conclusions” Brian’s book has just about all the details one could want. The sources are right there for the most part and are not taken out of context (as can happen in other places–especially online). It’s too bad that my response is taken as disheartening by Amanda @6. Its not meant to be. When someone asks a basic question about pre-Utah polygamy, they are not asking what Joseph’s story was, nor are they asking what the womens’ story was, they generally want to know (1) what is it (2) when did it happen (3) who was involved (4) how many were there and (5) why did it happen. What they felt and how they felt is important, but its not part of the basic answer, nor should it be. It is over-emphasis on feelings and emotions at the basic level of facts that permits some actions to be mistreated for political purposes or taken out of context. Anything other than those five items is basic. Brian’s 3 volumes covers those five. It should be basic because of that. In fact, I’d start with Bushman, Compton and then Hales. The others aren’t quite as comprehensive as those three.

    Please note, I’m not saying the others aren’t valuable, nor am I attempting to ignore the books on the womens’ lives and stories. They have their place, but for someone who knows little to nothing about the topic, they aren’t the place to start.

    Comment by Terry H — October 29, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

  13. “When someone asks a basic question about pre-Utah polygamy, they are not asking …”

    How do you know? The individual who asked the question commented just above you and indicated that 1) she is already familiar with Hales, and 2) satisfied by the response given above, eager to read more.

    Comment by Christopher — October 29, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

  14. I also think that, especially when it comes to difficult issues like polygamy, history is much more than the presentation of facts and data. A reason many historians shy away from Hales’s work is not that he didn’t accumulate lots of the important material–he certainly did, and should be commended for it–but that his framing, interpreting, and arguing of said data is funamentally flawed. This is actually true with a lot of historical work on polygamy, and the five sources listed above are what many trained in the field feel are the best approaches to the topic.

    Comment by Ben P — October 29, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

  15. About the Curse of Eve and women’s hopes to be freed from “desire” for their husbands–why was women’s desire for men seen as a curse, but not the reciprocal–men’s desire for women?

    Comment by Liz M. — October 29, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

  16. Christopher @ 13. I just go with the basic question, not what the person intended to ask or not. Just the plain words. Who, What, When, Where and Why. No Hows in it, unless “its How is it done.”

    Now, perhaps we should talk about assumptions of the questions. I assumed that we were talking about someone like I talked to who saw a copy of “The Persistence of Polygamy” in my possession. the first volume is sub-titled, “Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy”. She said, “That’s not right. Brigham Young started polygamy.” When I explained a little more, she said, “Half of my ward [in _______, Utah County, Utah] doesn’t know that.”

    For any of those people, I’d start with Bushman, Compton and Hales, in that order. Once they have more exposure to the basics (W,W,W,W,W) then they can branch out into the more nuanced accounts of the history.

    Comment by Terry H — October 29, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

  17. Ben P @14. Thanks, Ben. I’ll process some of that. I have noticed a distinct absence of Hales’ work in some sources, but assume its either because it is a fairly recent release for the part being discussed or there’s some other reason. I frankly, don’t see a problem with using his work and then commenting in footnotes or endnotes rather than ignoring it altogether.

    I still hold to my original premise about the basics, and its for those like I described above. I do recommend (and have for years) all five of those books, but I think the last three are not quite as “basic” as the others.

    Comment by Terry H — October 29, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

  18. Women’s experience is not “nuance,” Terry–it’s central. Full stop.

    Comment by Kristine — October 29, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

  19. It might also be a difference in how people approach history. I often find myself bored by straight historical accountings and am drawn in by books that use personal stories and really interesting theoretical arguments to tell the basics. Honestly, I recommend Mormon Enigma as a really good starting place for anyone who wants to know about Mormon polygamy because it tells the basics but also includes a really interesting perspective of how one woman dealt with the introduction of polygamy. For me, it’s the most compelling book about polygamy, though Compton’s book is also pretty compelling.

    Comment by Amanda — October 29, 2014 @ 5:09 pm

  20. Also, amen to Kristine.

    Comment by Amanda — October 29, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

  21. Amanda @ 19 & Kristine @ 20. With all due respect, women’s experience is sometimes nuance. It is not central. Having said that, sometimes it is. Women’s experience in the founding of the Relief Society and its early operations is central. Women’s experience in faith healing among women is central. However, dealing with the central framework as I’ve described is the only way to focus on history in my opinion. Focusing on individual experiences is a vital and essential part of history, but without the basic framework of events, actors (male or female), and chronology, you really can’t put the experiences in proper context. In discussing pre-Utah polygamy, isn’t it more important to discuss what it was, who was involved, when they did it, why they did it and how many there were before we talk about how how any of them, men or women felt and reacted to it. Of course, we will do that once we know what they did.

    Mormon Enigma may be the most compelling book about polygamy to someone (man or woman) because it is about a woman’s reaction to it. Having said that, polygamy didn’t start with Emma. Mormon Enigma talks about the basics from Emma’s perspective. What the authors knew about polygamy in the late 70s, early 80s when it was researched and written is far less than we know now. Even Todd Compton, as comprehensive as he was, acknowledges that we now know far more. Just ask him. He would say that with the new evidence brought forward by Hales, there might even be changes in some of his conclusions.

    I apologize for hijacking this comment line and will try to be more circumspect in the future. I am passionate about my history and educating those who don’t know it. I have firsthand experience in doing just that. Our failure churchwide to introduce many of these issues is almost more of a problem than the issues themselves. In my experience, you first and foremost go with the basics as I have described above. After you have done that, then, of course, you go into the other areas. I don’t recommend Mormon Enigma AS A START for that very reason. I want something a little more cut and dried. As I present it, I say that you can get more than one conclusion from the same evidence. Then once that’s done, of course you would talk about how the people must have felt and you try to understand that, not through our 21st Century prism, but through theirs and that is where the histories and experiences of all the various groups come into play. For some they’re the main course, for some they’re the dessert or the side dish. I’m just saying they shouldn’t be the appetizer.

    Comment by Terry H — October 29, 2014 @ 9:14 pm

  22. “I am passionate about my history and educating those who don?t know it. I have firsthand experience in doing just that.”

    –As do I. As does Kristine. I teach at a university. Please don’t presume that I have no experience teaching others about history.

    Comment by Amanda — October 29, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

  23. And, I should say, what bothers me most about polygamy is that women are treated as side dishes and desserts rather than as people.

    Comment by Amanda — October 29, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

  24. Continuing the thread of the most recent comments, in theory I wholly agree with introducing interested readers to the topic of polygamy with books like the first five in the OP. In practice, however, I am realizing that I’ve recommended Annie Tanner’s “A Mormon Mother” and Elizabeth Kane’s “A Gentile’s Account of Life in Utah’s Dixie” to far more friends interested in reading about polygamy than any of these other fine books. I don’t pretend that Kane or Tanner will be anywhere near as informative “about” polygamy, and they are anything but objective, but for some reason the lived experience they record seems to me far more likely to convey the essence of polygamy.

    Comment by AlexS — October 30, 2014 @ 10:10 am

  25. “With all due respect, women?s experience is sometimes nuance. It is not central. Having said that, sometimes it is. Women?s experience in the founding of the Relief Society and its early operations is central. Women?s experience in faith healing among women is central.”


    Comment by Christopher — October 30, 2014 @ 2:50 pm


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