Mormon Folklore, Part Two (Polygamy)

By November 15, 2007

Continuing on a previous post from earlier this week, I would now like to discuss a specific example of Mormon folklore. In preparation for the Folklore Society of Utah Conference this Saturday, I have collected close to 100 interviews of college-aged students regarding the practice of polygamy. I have discovered that as a result of the Church being virtually silent when it comes to the purposes of polygamy in authoritative discourse and writings, the most common way of learning about it is through folklore. This has lead to a wide diversity on when it was initiated, why it was practiced, and what will happen with it concerning the future.

In my interviews, I asked the following questions: Are you a descendant from a polygamist marriage? Why were you told polygamy was practiced? When did polygamy start? When/why did it end? Will polygamy be restored before the millennium? Will polygamy be practiced in heaven? From my research, here are some of the most interesting findings.

1. 62% of those interviewed said that it was practiced in order to give every widow a husband. Out of those who responded with this reason, 20% specifically mentioned that it was needed because of the many men killed during Missouri and Illinois persecutions. While this does not come as a shock, it does reinforce the idea that we try to make comforting reasons for discomforting practices. After reviewing the many responses to this answer, I have come up with four possible ideas why this is the predominant reason given for polygamy.

A. It eliminates the chance that it was introduced because of sexual desire. The Mormon Church gives a lot of emphasis on moral purity, so the accusation that polygamy was practiced because the leaders were sex-driven is not very appealing to us as a community. In order to keep early Church leaders appearing spotless and worthy of the great acclamation they receive, we reason that their practice of plural marriage must have been based on demographic, and not sexual, reasons.

B. It makes early leaders more charitable and service-oriented. When faced with the problem of many women left widowed, and therefore unsupported, the leaders took upon themselves the burden of taking care of these poor women. With the motto of not leaving any worthy saint behind, they made sure that every person was taken care of. Therefore, this makes those who took an extra wife appear laudably service-driven, as opposed to cunningly sex-driven.

C. It reinforces the view that the early Church was a group which was highly persecuted. Similar to the Puritan’s Jeremiad stance that their trials were proof of their chosen-ness by God, the Mormons felt that they must be God’s restored gospel because of all the opposition being thrown at them, obviously led by Satan himself. The practice of polygamy then was a necessary result from the situation the Saints were put into because of the violent bigotry surrounding them. This way, the blame for polygamy should not rest upon the saintly leaders, but rather upon the ungodly persecutors.

D. It reflects the Church’s doctrine regarding the necessity of marriage. In order to achieve the highest glory in the next world, it is necessary for a person to be sealed to a spouse. Therefore, polygamy, no matter how unorthodox it is, provides women an opportunity to be sealed in order to achieve all possible blessings in the next life.

2. The background of a person largely determines how they are introduced to the history of polygamy. Out of those I spoke with, 44% were descendants of polygamy, 27% were not descendants, and a surprising 29% did not know if they were a descendant or not. One of the biggest differences between these groups was how they were introduced to the Principle. 70% of descendants were introduced through the family, as opposed to 15% of non-descendants who were introduced through this means. In total, out of all those who were introduced in a familial setting, 83% were descendants.

3. The background of a person also largely determines why a person believes it was practiced. Out of those who said that it was practiced because it is the celestial form of marriage, 71% were descendants. Also, out of those who said that it was to raise righteous seed, over 80% were descendants. This possibly shows that those who descend from polygamy take more pride in its practice. This idea is backed up by the fact that the large majority of non-descendants said that it was practiced for economic or demographic reasons, as shown by the 80% who said that it was to provide husbands for widows.

4. The responses to whether polygamy will be restored in this life and whether it will be practiced in heaven exemplifies how folklore can influence the majority of the church. Even though there has not been any authoritative statements (that I can find anyway) saying there is even a remote possibility that polygamy will be practiced again before the millennium, 20% said that they believed that there would be.

5. The study has shown, and this is the troubling part to me, how firmly people believe in their reasons. 95% of those interviewed gave only one reason and one reason only to why it was practiced. Although they gave different reasons, those different reasons were the ONLY reasons they believed polygamy was practiced. Most even tried to qualify their beliefs by saying things like “I have heard it from someone in authority that it was because,” or “Everyone knows that it was because,” or even “it is completely obvious that it was because,” leaving no room for another reason to be possible. I fear that limiting the reasons like this leads to difficulties later on when they are faced with facts which contradict their previous beliefs.

What has been your experience on this subject? Are there other major factors that I am overlooking? Am I placing too much emphasis on one aspect rather than another? Am I reading too much into this?

Article filed under Current Events


Comments

  1. I fear that limiting the reasons like this leads to difficulties later on when they come upon facts which contradict with their previous beliefs.

    What makes you think that they will come upon these facts that will contradict their deeply-held beliefs regarding polygamy? I would surmise that if you interviewed 100 adults, you would get very similar responses.

    Comment by Christopher — November 16, 2007 @ 12:15 am

  2. I only mention that because of what Kathryn Daynes said was one of the major responses to her book. She said that many people would come up to her and say that her analysis of polygamy was wrong since it clashed with their already-held beliefs.

    Comment by Ben — November 16, 2007 @ 12:55 am

  3. Ben: That’s a pretty broad statement. Her book covers a lot of aspects of polygamy. Did she clarify what aspects of it clashed with people’s beliefs?

    Comment by David Grua — November 16, 2007 @ 12:58 am

  4. Fair enough. So the idea is that people will be exposed to it because of the increasing quanitity of literature detailing polygamy?

    Comment by Christopher — November 16, 2007 @ 12:58 am

  5. 4. The responses to whether polygamy will be restored in this life and whether it will be practiced in heaven exemplifies how folklore can influence the majority of the church. Even though there has not been any authoritative statements (that I can find anyway) saying there is even a remote possibility that polygamy will be practiced again before the millennium, 20% said that they believed that there would be.

    Ben: Did you happen to ask why people believe (or disbelieve) these two points?

    Comment by David Grua — November 16, 2007 @ 1:29 am

  6. David #3: Very good point. I am going to stop referring to her, because now that I think of it, I dont remember exactly what she was meaning. Carry on.

    Note to self: stop by Dr. Daynes office tomorrow to clarify what she meant.

    #5: I could have included examples, but most said that they were told this by a bishop, sunday school teacher, parent, etc.

    Comment by Ben — November 16, 2007 @ 1:38 am

  7. Chris: While I do agree that increased exposure to literature detailing the facts of polygamy would help, I do now know how we could go about this at a general level. Do you have any ideas?

    Comment by Ben — November 16, 2007 @ 1:42 am

  8. I think David’s mom told him the real reason: it’s that extra layer of fat that our biology teachers taught us about that women have; thus, more women survive a winter trek across the plains. obvious.

    Comment by stan — November 16, 2007 @ 3:17 am

  9. Regarding point 1, the social welfare function of polygamy, there is also the explanation E: It has a basis in historical fact, which is that in 19th-century Utah, many women who became polygamous wives lacked “male protection” (Richard Bushman reading Daynes). As I learned about polygamy in my own family history (a great project for bringing folklore analysis to bear, by the way), the use of polygamy as an institution of social welfare played an implicit role.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — November 16, 2007 @ 3:26 am

  10. Ben (#6): I’m not so interested in where folks are getting their information, but rather in the theological narratives that people use to make sense of the (dis)belief that 1) polygamy will be practiced before the millennium and 2) that there will be polygamy in heaven.

    It should also be noted that Daynes is clear that polygamy did provide for widows—but the widows were usually from foreign countries and as such marriage to an Anglo Mormon reduced marginalization. (that’s my gloss of what she argued, not her exact words)

    Comment by David Grua — November 16, 2007 @ 10:45 am

  11. Ben, I personally don’t care whether people believe in folkloric explanations of polygamy. I feel no obligation to “help” them. I am more interested in folklore for the reasons David describes in #10; namely, to understand how people make sense of polygamy. Understanding that is far more interesting to me than trying to convert people to a historically accurate understanding of Mormon plural marriage.

    Comment by Christopher — November 16, 2007 @ 1:07 pm

  12. I think it would be interesting to see a similar survey about the folklore of polygamy presented to the students of Graceland university.

    Comment by Tyler — November 16, 2007 @ 1:58 pm

  13. Tyler: That would be great. David Howlett in one of his BCC guest posts addressed to some degree RLDS views of polygamy.

    Comment by David Grua — November 16, 2007 @ 2:07 pm

  14. Christopher: That, to me, is the purpose of this study. Maybe I am not being clear enough. I think the way it is transmitted is key to understand how people make sense of it.

    Comment by Ben — November 16, 2007 @ 2:11 pm

  15. Interesting to see these results. My grandfather was born after the first manifesto to a second wife, so it was pretty common knowledge in our family. My perspective, however, has changed over the years dramatically. I was taught in our family about our polygamous heritage, but not extensively. Occasional references would be made to it possibly coming back, but neither of my parents seemed to be too keen on the idea. Definitely folkloric in nature. References made to a divine principle, and more women than men, as far as reasons for its existence.

    I have a whole different perspective now, based on what I have read and studied. Not at all what I was taught back in the day.

    Comment by kevinf — November 16, 2007 @ 6:46 pm

  16. So do my opinions, derived from reading others speculative theologies and historical accounts, count as folklore, or reasoned discourse?

    I think that since the existing silence on the matter from the church reduces even informed opinions to the realm of folklore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Comment by kevinf — November 16, 2007 @ 6:53 pm

  17. all good ideas are folklore

    Comment by stan — November 16, 2007 @ 7:12 pm

  18. My experience on the subject has been very similar. Throughout my life, I have heard numberless times the explanation that polygamy was practiced to give widows a husband to take care for them and their children financially, due to many men killed during Missouri and Illinois persecutions. Sometimes even the idea that there was nothing more than monetary and legal support granted through these marriages is implied in this thinking.

    Another important factor you should consider when studying the effects of polygamy learned through folklore is if the person being interviewed was born in the Church or a convert. Most converts join the Church with an extremely brief overview of Church doctrines, polygamy not being present in this overview unless brought up by the investigator. I think numerically, this factor will give insight on your study results.

    I don’t think you are reading too much into this. I believe you are on to something. I am from Mexico, a Catholic country. I have experienced members of the Church that have interacted with Mexico’s Catholicism being very critical of the Catholic aspect of society. They insist Catholics don’t know nor understand their own doctrine and they simply follow word of mouth stories and the traditions of their parents. I believe we need to be aware this phenomenon happens in LDS societies as well.

    I praise you for this study and I hope you can continue to do it in a much larger scale. One hundred interviews are hardly a representative number; nevertheless, the number does shed light on the effects of how the subject of polygamy has been managed in the Church. Quantitative statistics can represent more visually and objectively the effects of how the Church has managed the polygamy subject, thus laying a better foundation for further debate whether the effects are positive or negative.

    “I have discovered that as a result of the Church being virtually silent when it comes to the purposes of polygamy in authoritative discourse and writings, the most common way of learning about it is through folklore. This has lead to a wide diversity on when it was initiated, why it was practiced, and what will happen with it concerning the future.” – I couldn’t agree more.

    Comment by Manuel — November 16, 2007 @ 7:45 pm

  19. Kevin F: Very interesting statements. I find your views show up in a few people I interviewed, meaning that they were introduced to it, but they were soon led to different conclusions. I expect that number will rise as they get older and more exposed (they are currently college-aged). However, as Chris pointed out, the majority of adults remain with the same beliefs.

    Comment by Ben — November 17, 2007 @ 12:14 am

  20. KevinF: A basic definition of folklore is information passed along through face-to-face confrontations within a group who shares the same thoughts and impressions. Therefore, most things that you read would not be folklore, although they might describe it as folklore. Clear as mud?

    Comment by Ben — November 17, 2007 @ 12:16 am

  21. Manuel: Thanks for your remarks as well as your suggestions. I completely agree that 100 interviews is not a strong enough number, but with my time schedule (school, work, newly-wed wife), that is all I could get to. I hope to come back to this at some time and do much more research, hopefully expanding those interviewed to include people from different age groups, backgrounds, etc, in order to get a stronger grasp on the subject. However, these interviews were enough to see trends begin to develop.

    I have strongly considered the differences of those born in the church and those who are converts. In general, converts’ views usually fit into the group of those who are not descendants. Since they have no familial or personal relationship to polygamy, they are more prone to explain it using demographic, economic, and service-oriented means. I did not collect enough interviews from converts, however, to make a strong conclusion.

    Comment by Ben — November 17, 2007 @ 12:21 am

  22. Ben, the authoritative statement I have most often heard cited (just last week from a stake leader) in support of the idea that polygamy may return in this life is Isaiah 4:1.

    Comment by Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) — November 20, 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  23. Ben, the authoritative statement I have most often heard cited (just last week from a stake leader) in support of the idea that polygamy may return in this life is Isaiah 4:1.

    If I am not mistaken we can credit Brother McConkie and his Mormon Doctrine for the popularization of the that interpretation.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 20, 2007 @ 10:21 pm

  24. Obviously the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming of the Son of Man and the ushering in of the millennium. (Isa. 4) (Mormon Doctrine, 578).

    I’d say you’re right, J.

    Comment by Christopher — November 20, 2007 @ 10:41 pm

  25. Obviously…

    Comment by David Grua — November 20, 2007 @ 10:49 pm

  26. When I read Section 132 of the D&C it seems pretty clear to me that obtaining the highest reaches of the Celestial Kingdom requires a man who has been commanded to marry multiple wives. The manifesto withdrew a general commandment to men who were able to do so to enter into the principle. I recall that one of the things Joseph Smith taught was that a Moslem who accepted the Gospel could retain his multiple wives, a promise that has not been maintained by current authority.
    The book of Mormon implies that the only reason that polygyny is ever authorized is for the raising up of a righteous seed. The only arguments I am aware of that speak of the virtue of polygyny in caring for widows were comparisons with the evils of eastern cities where prostitution was common and poor widows might be left destitute and be given no other alternative for survival. This was never a justification of the practice, but a seredipedous result.
    Demographically a common practice of polygamy by all the men in the church was unsustainable mathematically unless missionaries were indeed sent to Europe as procurors as so many anti tracts indicated. Look at the FLDS experience and the phenomena of the “lost boys” who have been exiled from their faith community because there was no room for them, x-ed for the merest trifles in order to reduce competition for the eligible young women.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — December 2, 2007 @ 12:08 am


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