From Embrace to Embarrassment: Remembering Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

By November 2, 2007

Latter-day Saints (including me) in the 21st century have, to say the least, a complex relationship with their past. A friend once told me that Mormon history offers everything a historian could ask for—polygamy, visions, ancient books, violence, prophets, etc. While these things fascinate historians and buffs alike, for many contemporary Mormons that are missionary minded, they present uncomfortable difficulties when brought up with friends of other faiths. I think that part of this discomfort stems from the fact that we no longer see ourselves in parts of our past. When we share stories about ourselves with others, we choose aspects of our past that we feel define us. In like manner, we hide or diminish those things that embarrass us. One of these things is Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy.

For much of the 19th century and even during the first decades of the 20th century, this was not the case. As SC Taysom has shown, once the Saints publicly announced that plural marriage was a religious tenet in 1852, telling the world that Joseph Smith was a polygamist was an integral part of Mormon self-representations. [1] These self-representations were soon contested however by the counter-memory put forward by members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints–a counter-narrative that portrayed Smith as a monogamist. Debates with the RLDS became a struggle over who would have the power to define Smith’s image in the wider culture and, by extension, the power to claim the mantle of Joseph Smith’s Mormonism. Embracing the memory of Smith as a polygamist was therefore an integral part of Brighamite identity during the 19th century.

The complete abandonment of polygamy in the first decades of the 20th century, coupled with changing relations with the RLDS, has moved Smith’s polygamy from the center of our public self-representations to the margins. At times, it seems that his polygamy is only in the picture when we’re called upon to defend him. Smith’s polygamy is now an embarrassment to modern Mormons, and remembering his polygamy is usually avoided (or diminished) in public representations of our past. Perhaps most ironically and tragically, I’ve observed that many disaffected Mormons claim that learning about Joseph Smith’s polygamy–primarily polyandry and marrying 14-year-old girls–contributed to their becoming disillusioned. What was once a bulwark of Mormon identity now serves in some cases to contest and even disintegrate it.

Note: To be clear, since there seems to be some confusion, I am not saying that most Mormons in their private lives or in their discussions among themselves, are embarrassed by Smith’s polygamy. Rather, I am pointing to embarrassment in their self-representations to others outside of the faith.


[1] Stephen C. Taysom, “A Uniform and Common Recollection: Joseph Smith’s Legacy, Polygamy, and the Creation of Mormon Public Memory, 1852-2002,” Dialogue 35, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 114-44.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Gender Intellectual History Memory


  1. David, do you think that a time might come when this will shift, and JS’s polygamy become an important identity marker without resuming the practice or repudiating current pushes towards a constitutional definition of marriage?

    It would seem to me that current perceptions JS’s polygamy and polygamy in general have been shaped not as much by outside stigma as by internal rhetoric in the early parts of the 20th century as Church leaders strived to show the world that they were serious about abandoning the practice. Those that grew up in the days of the Short Creek Raids, for example, and similar anti-polygamy actions understandably have a certain view on the matter. In a day when “alternate” lifestyles have gained wider toleration culturally, might a future generation view the Church’s polygamous past in more favorable light?

    Comment by Jared — November 2, 2007 @ 12:16 pm

  2. Interesting analysis, David. It’s not just disaffected Mormons that are disillusioned with polyandry and teenage brides. Most active, faithful Mormons I know struggle with those issues. I think part of the stigma attached to JS’s polygamy is the secrecy surrounding it. Because relatively little is known of when it started and how it was carried out, Mormons shy away from it, choosing to ignore rather than engage the little documentary evidence available.

    Comment by Christopher — November 2, 2007 @ 12:26 pm

  3. Jared: I agree that the roots of our current polygamy discourse are found in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries efforts to present ourselves as Americans, when Church leaders began to downplay the importance of plural marriage for earlier generations. But I’m not sure that I agree that this was not in response to external stigmatization. What Protestants thought of us, with notable exceptions, shaped most of the public discourse on polygamy during the period.

    Will JS’s polygamy ever become a positive identity marker again without resuming the practice? I highly doubt that. From my limited experience, most mainstream Mormons have little or no sympathy for Fundamentalists.

    Chris: I agree that the secrecy surrounding JS’s polygamy contributes to the problem, especially the “Lying for the Lord” stuff. We’re far from being able to fully answer this question: “Who are we that this could have happened?”

    Comment by David Grua — November 2, 2007 @ 12:54 pm

  4. I always find it amazing how many college students today have no idea about Joseph’s involvement. I am currently taking some surveys for a project relating to modern perceptions of polygamy, and a vast majority respond that polygamy did not begin until the trek west.

    Comment by Ben — November 2, 2007 @ 12:58 pm

  5. David, I’m certainly not saying that external views did not have a heavy part to play. What I mean is that it seems that when we get past the second manifesto and the Smoot hearings and into the mid part of the century, it’s almost as if Mormons are pushing harder against polygamy than can be accounted for by outside pressure.

    As Kathleen Flake points out, “Given its long history, the Mormon Problem faded relatively quickly from the nation’s consciousness after the 1907 decision to seat Apostle Smoot…subsequent efforts to attract attention to the evils of Mormonism were wasted on the larger public and appealed only to churches that found in Mormonism a useful foil against which to shape their own sectarian identities. The rest of America moved on, happy to forget about the Latter-day Saints…” (The Politics of Religious Identity, 159)

    Getting past the Second Manifesto, into the 20s and beyond, as Quinn points out in his biography of J. Reuben Clark, it became not only an issue of what the world thought, but of the challenge to orthodox priesthood authority that the polygamists presented.

    So, of course outside pressures shaped the discourse, but after the crusaders left the ball in the first decade of the 20th century, internal authorities took it up again. Martha Bradley also discusses this in her book on the Short Creek raids.

    Ultimately, my point is that it’s the participants in this era and their sons that I feel have shaped LDS perspectives on this issue as they’ve been in a position to do so up to the present.

    However, since that crusade has also died down to a degree, perhaps the door will open at some point for a more favorable assessment in our collective memory of Joseph Smith and polygamy.

    Comment by Jared — November 2, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

  6. Jared: I think we’re arguing about semantics here. I concede that Mormon authorities have been the ones to push anti-polygamy raids and such in the 20th century, but why have they done this? Because of a desire not to be associated with polygamy in the eyes of Protestants, and, I might add, in the eyes of potential converts. And it is that desire that will keep us from being more sympathetic toward JS’s plural marriage.

    Comment by David Grua — November 2, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

  7. I suppose, then, if I, personally, don’t care what Protestants think of me and my religion, it won’t be as big an issue to me. If more had this point of view collectively, would that necessarily have a detrimental effect on how Mormons are accepted in society? Might we get along just as well if we were more comfortable with our polygamous past?

    I feel I got along well with everyone as the only Mormon in my circle of friends back in Texas. I never felt a shame about polygamy, nor have ever felt to repudiate it. Maybe my experience is atypical. Maybe knowing early on that JS practiced it is a factor.

    Comment by Jared — November 2, 2007 @ 2:29 pm

  8. David, I think that Jared’s point about the issue being one of hierarchical primacy is important. Sure we have wanted to fit in, but are all the extremes that have gone into fighting polygamy (as Jared alludes to in the various publications he mentions) the result of wanting to look good or maintaining institutional control? While both, I think the latter is higher in the minds of Church leaders after Smoot was seated.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 2, 2007 @ 2:30 pm

  9. Jared, I guess you’re “anomalous” too. 🙂

    I tend to agree with David on this one–I think the hierarchy has pursued modern polygs primarily in an effort to stifle any views by outsiders that they’re sympathetic to polygamy.

    Comment by Christopher — November 2, 2007 @ 2:48 pm

  10. Jared: I don’t know if you went around telling non-Mormons in Texas that Joseph Smith was a polygamist, but I sure didn’t. Growing up among the Baptists in Houston JS’s polygamy was certainly not on the tip of my tongue when talking to my friends of other faiths.

    Stapley: I guess I don’t make “wanting to look good” and “maintaining institutional control” distinct categories. I see wanting to look good as one important influence in maintaining institutional control. Were there other factors? Sure, I don’t deny them but I don’t see them as being more important than wanting to avoid the appearance of being soft on polygamy in the ranks.

    Comment by David Grua — November 2, 2007 @ 2:49 pm

  11. I’m curious how large a sample you tested before you came up with “Smith’s polygamy is now an embarrassment to modern Mormons.”

    Sure, I have questions, and sometimes my puzzlement turns to bewilderment–but maybe I’m just not modern enough to be embarrassed.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 2, 2007 @ 2:51 pm

  12. Mark: I did a random sample of 4,000 Mormon households in the Intermountain West, the South, Mexico, Argentina, and Indonesia. My study has a margin of error of 100%, give or take a few percentage points.

    In all seriousness, like a lot of what we’re discussing on this thread in terms of twentieth-century perceptions, my claim is based primarily on anectdotal and literary evidence, not the hard data you’re asking for.

    Comment by David Grua — November 2, 2007 @ 2:57 pm

  13. My perception is that the church hierarchy was actually very quiet about the ongoing polygamy issues for most of the latter half of the 20th century, starting with the bad press about the Short Creek raids, and only occasionally distancing the mainstream church from the violence related to the Allred’s and LeBarons of the fundamentalist movement. It seems that only since the 1990’s did the state of Utah even begin to make any efforts at enforcing the anti-polygamy laws, and then mostly in connection with child-abuse and child rape allegations, beginning with the Kingstons. My observation is that the last 15 years or so, the church has only been involved to the extent that they have tried to define the distinction between us as the legitimate mainstream church and the apostate polygamist sects in the eyes of the press. I’m not sure I have observed the church actively “going after the polygamists”, at least in my life time.

    It does create a paradox, both in the general public’s perception of us as a church, and in the faithful membership as well.

    Comment by kevinf — November 2, 2007 @ 3:29 pm

  14. kevinf, it is probably good that you haven’t observe the church actively “going after polygamists.” This is likely because you and none of your associates at church dabble in the practice. There are few things that will get you exed quicker. The temple recommend question about affiliating with certain groups was written with polygamists in mind.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 2, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

  15. Kevin: I’d say that I agree with your analysis. Speaking for myself (I assume that Jared, J., and Chris would agree), when we talk about the church “going after polygamists” we’re referring to excommunicating them and the “church spies” that contributed to the Short Creek raids.

    The efforts to distinguish ourselves from the fundamentalists started at least as early as the 1910s, and, as you say, continues to the present.

    Comment by David Grua — November 2, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

  16. Stapley,

    Some people think that question refers to Democrats, but of course, polygamy is really the elephant in the room. I guess I am drawing a distinction here between the open polygamists sects that had their break in the 1930’s and their “council of elders” or whatever the name was (I recall that there were 7 of them?), as opposed to the secret practice of polygamy by members supposedly in good standing. The church can’t ex Warren Jeffs, he’s not really a member. Nor were the Kingston’s, et al. I used to get my shoes fixed at their co-op store in Bountiful back in the 80’s, but I don’t think that counted.

    Comment by kevinf — November 2, 2007 @ 4:11 pm

  17. David,

    In that sense, I agree that in the sense of ex-ing the closet polygamists, it is viewed as a challenge to priesthood authority.

    Over the last 25 years, I would assert that there has been a sea change in the views of the membership of the church regarding polygamy. It used to be fairly commonly discussed in gospel doctrine classes, PH, and RS classes. Now, perhaps because the younger membership of the church is that much farther removed from it, the awareness factor seems reduced to me. I haven’t taken time to look through the new Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: JS manual for the next two years, but I suspect that polygamy is probably not mentioned in any significant way. I’ll take a look tonight, see what I can find.

    Mr grandfather was the youngest child of a second wife, born after the first manifesto. That is still pretty immediate with me. Doubtful that most members of my ward under 40 have any significant sense of their relationship with polygamy. Open speculation in priesthood meeting about the return of the practice has given way to just a sense of embarrassment about “Big Love”. My non-member early morning basketball buddies were joking about “Big Love” this morning with me.

    Comment by kevinf — November 2, 2007 @ 4:24 pm

  18. Kevin: RT did a pretty good analysis of the WW manual over at ldsliberationfront. It’s as you suspect in that plural marriage is not a prominent theme.

    Comment by David Grua — November 2, 2007 @ 4:31 pm

  19. I think you ought to distinguish between “public embarrassment,” where people find it difficult to explain or defend the practices you describe to those outside the Church, and “private embarrassment,” where Mormons, on their own terms, are sincerely embarrassed by the practices. I believe there’s a good chunk of the LDS population that would be publicly embarrassed but not privately embarrassed by Joseph Smith’s polygamy. And whether they should or should not be privately embarrassed is a complex question.

    Here’s a puzzle: I rarely see anyone give Mormons credit for owning up to their own history. Just try to find a Protestant or Evangelical who feels any sense of accountability for the regrettable events or practices of their own past. Martin Luther condones the massacre of thousands of German peasants? New England Puritans imprison, abuse, and even execute Quakers? Southern Christians spend a hundred years giving Christian justifications for slavery and its train of inhumane practices? These are all someone else’s problem to every Protestant or Evangelical I’ve ever met, yet they lay every difficult event from Mormon history at the feet of the modern Church, blissfully ignorant of their own hypocrisy. At least Mormons are honest about their past and try to deal with it.

    If disaffected Mormons who become such due to issues with LDS polygamy had any idea how hypocritical Christians are about their own past, I think they might feel less private embarrassment about LDS history.

    Comment by Dave — November 2, 2007 @ 5:40 pm

  20. Dave: All very good points. I had the distinctions you describe in my own mind, but you’re right that I should have been clearer about that in my initial post.

    Comment by David Grua — November 2, 2007 @ 5:54 pm

  21. I reviewed the new Teachings manual for RS and PH, and it had the following comment: “This book deals with teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that have application to our day…this book also does not discuss plural marriage….the Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime”.

    It does not mention that many of those marriages involved him, or even that he participated. I understand limiting the scope of the manual to current doctrines, but to not mention in the chronology or his life history about his plural marriages may still be puzzling to many.

    Comment by kevinf — November 4, 2007 @ 9:15 pm

  22. Kevinf: Thanks for doing that and reporting. Sometimes I think that we could do a lot more in Priesthood/RS classes to expose members to the more sensitive issues in our past, such as JS’s polygamy. Can you imagine a lesson just devoted to D&C 132 and the origins of polygamy? Then I remember some of the wards that I’ve been in and I think that that could be a disaster (and would take a lot longer than 45 minutes). I think we’re left with the Ensign being the best vehicle for instruction on these issues.

    Comment by David Grua — November 4, 2007 @ 9:33 pm

  23. I see little reason to apologize for the practice of polygamy per se. It’s not for me personally, but the practice is not really that repulsive to me – although many of the things that often accompanied it are.

    Comment by Seth R. — November 5, 2007 @ 3:28 pm

  24. Fascinating posting by all. I grew up in a very conservative RLDS home and strongly believed that Joseph Smith had nothing to do with polygamy until I found otherwise while doing research for my senior honors thesis. As this was coming on the heels of many other discoveries about Smith that I knew little about (treasure digging, the political kingdom of God, temple ordinances, etc.), I was devastated.

    Among Community of Christ members today, dealing with polygamy takes various forms. For instance, I am surprised by how many CofC members still believe Joseph Smith had nothing to do with polygamy–perhaps as many as a third do so. A recent study on JS, Jr.’s polygamy that was to be given to a group of CofC pastors going through the seminary program had to be pulled and revised because it was generating so much controversy. (I’m not sure how it was revised.) This is not to say that CofC official publications do not admit to this part of the past; it’s just that official statements and the beliefs of average members do not always correlate.

    On the horizon, Mark Scherer, the CofC historian, will be publishing a new three-volume church history in May through the CofC’s official press. mark will definitely deal with Smith’s practice of plural marriage. Before Mark’s work is out, a group I am working with will publish a short church history for new believers also by the CofC’s in-house press. Guess who has been assigned the Nauvoo chapter? I’m trying hard to be pastoral in this work, but, given the real differences of opinion that exist now in the CofC on polygamy, it is quite hard.

    Comment by David Howlett — November 15, 2007 @ 10:09 am

  25. David, thanks for your insight. Those new volumes sound very interesting. Do you know what the scheduled publishing date is?

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 15, 2007 @ 10:34 am

  26. David: Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think that in studying Mormon memory it is fascinating to compare and contrast how Brighamites and Josephites deal with their past.

    Comment by David Grua — November 15, 2007 @ 11:14 am

  27. I am surprised by how many CofC members still believe Joseph Smith had nothing to do with polygamy?perhaps as many as a third do so.

    How many CoC members do you think are completely unaware of JS’s polygamy (as opposed to aware of the notion but dismissive of it)? I would imagine that with the growth of CoC in other countries, a fair number of South American, African, and European CoC members would be completely oblivious to JS’s polygamy.

    Comment by Christopher — November 15, 2007 @ 12:38 pm


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