Notes from the Utah State Historical Society?s 56th Annual Conference, Part 2: Polygamy

By September 14, 2008

Here are my notes from the panel discussion on Polygamy and Fundamentalism.  Michael Homer asked questions with B. Carmon Hardy, Martha Bradley, Michael Marquardt, and Gordon Melton (Institute for the Study of American Religion) as panelists:

1:00Panel on the History of Polygamy

Homer: Compare and contrast FLDS polygamist

Carmon Hardy: There is a lot of continuity, though the mainline church wants to distance themselves from them, what the fundamentalists are trying to do is a lot like what the 19th century church was trying to do.  What has emerged in my work the 19th century… spokesmen talked about the preeminence of polygamy. To take it away would tear the whole fabric of Mormonism apart. It’s curious that these fundamentalist groups also take polygamy as a centerpiece.

Another feature prominent in the 19th cen and polygamists is heavy emphasis on patriarchalism, and I don’t think that’s been properly emphasized in Mormon history.  A major reason for the introduction, I think, was to secure the father of the home as a central authority. I can document that, but I don’t want to take too much time with it now.  Another thing between the fundamentalists and 19th, emphasis of children, having children, multiplying children.  Many statements that ones’ glory tied to the size of ones family.  New wives so that there would be more children.  You see a  strong strain of patriarchalism in modern fundamentalist beliefs.

Fundamentalists say they are restoring the old biblical practice of the old patriarchs, since Mormonism is a restorationist movement, they are doing what the 19th cen. church said they were doing, restoring the practice of patriarchal marriages. Some difference, but these are some similarities.

Homer: In your book Mormon Polygamous Passage…you talk about transition to post manifesto no practice of pm, as you know, the press doesn’t always pars the diff. bet. 19th cen and what’s going on today. To what extent does the doctrine of polygamy persist in the LDS Church if at all?

Hardy: The doctrine is very much there, the practice has ceased. The revelation is still in the canon, even B. R. Mcconkie in his book Mormon Doctrine said the practice is a sin now, but made reference that it has been suspended until the millennium, so the idea that it is still a proper form of marriage, perhaps in heaven, does persist. And widowers are able to add wives for time and eternity and presumably have a plural family order in the next life.  I found it very interesting and I’m anxious to be corrected on this…remember the statement on the Family?  I think at least one apostle, Packer, said it ought to be looked upon as a revelation.  I think the language is “a man and a woman”, thus leaving the opening that marriage may be polygamous later.  Incidentally, that kind of language of “a man to a woman” was employed in the 19th century. [Ed. note: This is true, though I have noticed that more recent concerns over gay marriage have brought the Church to begin adopting the more stark language of “one man and one woman”.]

Bradley:  I can build on Carmon’s remarks and link to what he’s said to the most recent raid last spring and ways we can interpret it.  I suspect…these are the usual faces here today…as we saw the media treatment of the raid, we thought about this raid and the history of the region, the question about what would Joseph Smith say about this most recent episode? Would he recognize in the present practice of polygamy the origins, approve of the lifestyle?  I want to make some general comments.  The first interesting thing is how different the scale [of the practice] is from JS’s time. The most faithful were one by one introduced to it, practiced in almost an entirely subterranean way.  Very different now, though they live in isolated communities, the domestic scale is diff.  These individuals have inherited the practice, it’s the culture they were raised in. They’re learning how to be fundamentalists from their aunts, mothers, dads, etc.  They would, if you ask them, say that they are the original Mormons, their beliefs are those of Joseph Smith and they’d be adamant.  I’ve been interested to think about how this culture has grown that they have now of coded behaviors, “Staying sweet”, etc.  I’m struck at how familiar the persecution narrative is that they are portraying. They are being persecuted and it reflects the general trends in the 19th cen.  Those in the ’53 raid frame it the same way.  It’s not the first raid.

Differences today.  Technology, the group has changed significantly with Warren Jeffs. What would JS think about Warren Jeffs?  Interesting to wonder.

Homer: Gordon Melton has done a study of the anti-cult movement. I was wondering if you see any involvement in this anti cult movement and the current situation.

Gordon:  The role that child abuse takes. The officials that raided used the charges of child abuse as the excuse to move in. They weren’t moving against polygamy so much as child abuse.  In their prosecution of the cases, child abuse, sexual relations between minors and adults loomed heavily much more than illicit cohabitation. This takes us back to the 1970s when at a conference of attys general of various states wanted to make child abuses in religion a major focus of activity. W/in a year or two there were a number of cases filed against Christian Scientists, Church of the Firstborn, which has some Mormon roots, cases in which children had been denied access to medicine. A number were prosecuted.  Some parents were sent to jail, groups got pressure put on them because they didn’t use doctors. Anti cult movt. Child abuse used at Waco. Cases in 80s and 90s where the anti-cult mvt. used legal action to attack diff. groups. Even in 90s experienced a set of setbacks.  Arguments came up that certain groups were brainwashing. The Anti-Cult Movement [ACM] was left w/o a program, so what could it do? One of the things is that the ACM began to focus on polygamy, they had workshops, mobilized psychological support, became active in promoting the case against these groups. Had most success in Texas. El Dorado is not the first group Texas moved against. Church of Yahweh, trials going on even now, near Abilene.  Similar in NM on Church of our Righteousness, so this is part of the context in which the attack on the church in Texas has occurred. They’ve been promoting this issue with the state atty gen’s office and mobilizing forces to bring these kinds of activities…

Homer: What can you describe that the origins of polygamy are?

Michael Maquardt:  Church started monogamous, in the 19th cen, the federal govt. was trying to get rid of polygamy and perceived ideas of theocracy in Utah, it’s a long history that Carmon has outlined. It took at least 20 years before the church stopped performing sealings. Since that time, polygamists groups and later church have said they are following JS, BY, JT, especially JT’s revelation.  Thos who practice it hold in high regards Utah’s history, church history.  The public relations of the church don’t want any direct link with these groups not even the word “Mormon” even though these groups have a shared history. Of course the LDS church has a limited polygamy allowing a woman….but Mormon polygamy has been relegated to a less doctrinal position, seldom discussed.  So, in fact, when you consider that section 132 is still in the book, you have to realize that this revelation was mainly given to Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s wife, and in a certain extent to his brother Hyrum.  So it was given in a certain place and time and for a specific reason and many of his marriages were performed before this section was given.  As long as it’s in the book, it will be a problem, especially if you want a different kind of image. Most Americans didn’t see polygamy as biblical or a useful approach to marriage.

Homer: Carmon, in your latest book you collected documents on polygamy, what did you find were some of the reasons given by church leaders to justify the practice. In the end, how many actually practiced it in the 19th century.

Hardy:  The main reason introduced was that JS was attempting to restore many things in the church practiced by the ancient patriarchs. The single most important thing mentioned in the 19th cen by defenders of the faith was that he was commanded to do it. Interestingly, there were a range of other arguments, fascinating ones that have been often quite forgotten. One was that not only was this s a restoration but that it had a socioeconomic value, only those societies that supported it could long survive. It was the government of god.  As Orson Spencer said it, Abraham saw the domestic order of the gods. Polygamy here is a transcript of the domestic order of heaven.  Another was that it might possibly be a way of removing the cures of eve from women.  Another that it would cultivate greater health and longevity.  I gave a lot of attention to that, it seemed very overlooked. But if it were practiced as taught, “regulated and restrained” where sex employed only for reproductive purposes, we’d regain the health and longevity of the ancients and live a long long time.  Fascinating arguments.  I don’t know what to do with the fact that we don’t have any 800 yr old men walking around salt lake. [laughter]. Of course, it had practical purposes. A way of taking care of widows and orphans.  Brigham Young to Horace Greene, many women he married he took on as mothers rather than wives to take care of them. Also a way of restoring the patriarchal order which was looked on in Victorian American as a weakness in the home, a lack of authority and discipline by the male element of the house.  Those were some. How many?  It may be, Katherine can speak to this better than I can.  The last conversation I had with Ben Bennion was that it was between 20-30% on average.  There were places where Mormon colonies (more like between 75-100 percent polygamists.) I would appreciate a comment from Katherine…but I think the consensus is around 20-30%.

Bradley: I thought endlessly on the way we justify pm and build a case for why the practice continued .  Maybe this is far out.  I think that once JS had announced this as a revelation to this growing body of men and women, they heard that as a commandment from God and if they were a believing follower ,that obliged them to act upon it.  It seems that since then as we try to understand it we’re observing the impact of the practice.  These discourses that BY, etc gave, I see them as building an explanatory myth that tied their identity to this peculiar practice that would mark them.  If you’re from outside Utah, often the one thing you know is that Mormons practice polygamy.  That becomes this explanatory narrative. Those sermons and statements contributed to the building of that myth.  I also think that the practices related to that story were really as much as anything the individual efforts of human beings to make sense of it. In the 19th cent JS didn’t have a rule book about how this was to play out. There were many revelations.  Beyond that initial stage, I think a lot was left up to the instinct of human beings, so the socioeconomic stability was an incidental effect of the original revelatory element.  It seems that it’s an explanatory narrative that created boundaries around them and created meaning of the…

Homer: Carmon, could you give a short answer to how did fundamentalist polygamy come into being?

Hardy: I think fundamentalism came into being like many new sects are born. They see the old church changing.  Most of the variations of Catholicism were owing to a feeling that the old church had become too secular.  It’s a characteristic pattern.  It was precisely this that happened. As the church shed many things it had held to for a long time, decades, these were now set aside such as polygamy. There were numbers who were deeply affected and saddened and believe that the mainline church had gone astray and lost the guidance of heaven. The early fundamentalists and many since are arguing that they live in the gospel in its fullness and the main church has set it aside to the displeasure of god.  Anther thing that contributed was the tortuous change from a polygamist to a monogamous church. If we see that the church continued to approve marriages to about WWI.  “It seemed like our church was going in two directions.” Flake says in her book that at one time it looked like there were two churches as one part secretly continued the practice.  So you have a divided image and I think that many of those that came involved first setting up the council of friends, etc. They felt they were the stalwarts and it fell to them to keep the church on track. I think many fundamentalists today yet believe that. One fundamentalist died just a while ago, he put on hi s grave stone “A Joseph Smith Mormon” they see themselves as the true inheritors and when they felt the direction of the church went to another, there were a lot who determined that they would right the ship and keep it on course.

Gordon: The burning question for me was how does the Evansville E…Church relate to the fundamentalists? Emmanuel Church where I was pastor, product of protestant…church built by first generation Swedish immigrants and had a reputation as a church of women, many of whom worked as …the reason that Methodists don’t have as strong a presence in Sweden, like the Mormons, they were experiencing a 50% loss of membership by migration. Every year 1/2 left for the US and an inordinate amount were unattached females. Imagine, how many extra females are there in the church? But the children born of these unions will even out the disparity.  In both the Methodist and Mormon situations, that abundance of females had disappeared.  Brigham said he didn’t want prostitution, so he had more women than monogamy could support.  You see similar situation, Short Creek had an abundance, but over generations w/o a lot of unattached females joining, now the ratio is 50-50, so a problem with aging of the community, not as many widows and widowers, better health, and older men wanting to multiply it.  Pressures in the community.  Young men don’t have marriage partners and younger and younger women grabbed up as marriage partners.

Will Bagley Question: Carmon’s remarks made me recall looking at Nathanael Ball who bankrolled the modern fundamentalist movt. How much was this a reaction to Heber J. Grant’s crusade against polygamy. There was a feeling of persecution and what role did it play?

Carmon: there’s no question in my mind that when HJG became pres in 1918, the turn that had been taken became more defined and they did get much more emphatic about condemning those that continued it.  It’s clear he played a role…Grant boasted of his wives around the turn of the century. Why the change in him? I can’t say for sure.

Homer: Moving forward with the issue of the legality of polygamy and whether it’s an acceptable lifestyle…

Bradley: Before we get to that..  HJG was institutionalizing this mainstream church image.  It struck me that as that institutionalization process is going on, what’s going on in the FLDS is trying to figure out what they’re about. They have men ascending to leadership positions, charismatic. They’re loosely associated.  As they were doing this, I think they were trying to get a sense of the identity they were going to push forward. It was about the continued authority they believed they had to continued plural marriage [pm]. They began calling their enterprise “the Work”.

Bagley: What role did the excommunications play in the victim status?

Brad: That becomes how they frame their experience to the world.

Bagley: Did any informants in short creek speak about that period?

Brad: I’m gathering information on this persecution narrative.  Vera Black, described that raid as the most faith promoting experience she had. This is a religious experience for them.

Hardy: To add to that, and further responding to Will’s question. In Truth magazine, started about ’35.  Article after article addresses this and they’re extremely critical of HJG for selling out to the world. As evidence he lost the mantle, Grant declared that heaven he tried to communicate with God that the heavens were like brass [Ed note: I seem to remember this actually having been a declaration of Joseph F. Smith during the Smoot hearings]. Characterization of Grant was clear and how they saw the church being too worldly.  I believe they also said that that turn began with Wilford Woodruff and the manifesto.  That was the sell out. WW didn’t get a revelation, it was pragmatism on his part and the church following that fell down the wrong path and HJG was the most visible evidence of that in his minds.

Marquardt: 1933, statement by 1st pres.  When the church questioned the historicity of the revelation of JT, that spurred them on further.  This declaration said that celestial marriage was monogamy.  Cited the pledge to statehood.  Of course the SL Tribune were keeping tabs on who had been married and who was meeting with who. You began to see excommunications and eventually Mark E. Peterson came in and it was a big project.  The earliest story of Joseph recalled by Joseph Noble that JS said an angel came.  When JS was practicing pm there were no rules, whatever he did, eventually over time disappeared. He was sealed to married women.  How did that relate? He never gave rules. Gradually the ideas he had were revised throughout the years. To build a case for pm, people have recalled that things happened in the 1830s.  One of the interesting ones was Fanny Alger, using a statement by Mosiah Hancock. He’s recalling later about a marriage in Ohio.  The myth has gone on both ways. How was it originally begun?

Homer: In the next few years there will be debate on the polygamous lifestyle, your thoughts on that?
Gordon: My opinion at this point regarding the judicial system is that polygamy now is a dead issue.  If adults want to live that way w/ or w/o formal marriage. Why not?  We have a large segment living w/o marriage now anyway, serial monogamy.  Maybe what will seal this is how gay marriage legislation survives and I think it will along New England and the West coast. So if it’s adults we’re talking about, I don’t think the law will concern itself and the public will become more accepting.  Polymorphous marriages where groups of men marry groups of women and they form a family.  It didn’t work for any more than a decade, but perhaps those are signs of things to come.  Maybe in terms of adult family relationships, large scale criticism that would destroy those relationships is a thing of the past.

Homer: So the distinction between adult and underage polygamy going to be the big issue?

Hardy: I agree with what Gordon said…we’re becoming more tolerant of gay marriage and polygamy particularly between consenting adults.  W struggle with how to define adult anyway, so I think that question will be solved.

Bradley: I’m more cynical. I think the election has shown how confused we are about gender and sexuality.   A few months ago I was looking for things on the internet and bumped into polygamy dating websites.  I think though, that what made this El Dorado situation so incendiary is the religious dimension suggesting that women and children were not well served by this way of life. I remember media coverage seemed to argue that these people were just backward.  Goofy clothing as if that was criminal. I thought we talked about too much how the women were submissive…people talked about patriarchy on steroids. It runs in our system, but the gap between genders holds this meaning. I don’t think we’re as advanced as we might think. I think we’ll see a backlash. In 10 years we’ll be more reactionary than accepting.

Question:  I think there’s a difference between what’s tolerated and what’s legal. What’s the future?

Homer: That’s the next panel.

Gordon: Not only that distinction but what the courts will tolerate.  I’ve found the courts more tolerant. I was in a case with a group called “the family” believes in monogamy, but that members should freely share sex with members in the family.  I became ware that this experienced judge would drop comments about what he saw in family court and how tolerant he was because of what he had seen in other cases, adultery and unmarried mothers, etc. I saw that as one of the issues.  How will the courts treat them? How are they treating family cases they have to deal with …those issues are liberalizing the courts.

Hardy: Historically the law follows social tradition, maybe slowly, but tradition is more malleable.  If we see what’s happened in other areas, in every area we are slowly more liberal more general. Maybe a hope on my part, but I think its so.  I think much the same pattern will happen with polygamy and homosexuality.

Gordon: We should also point out a distinction between the past and now. In the 1860s, the US was moving to destroy the idea of Deseret and create states out of it.  There were real issues…here’s  a polygamous society challenging our society. [Today] This is just a quaint group. Question not if they are going to alter us, but is it ok to go out in the desert and let them do their thing?

Hardy: What’s interesting to me is the 19th cen Mormon Church when pressured on the matter of polygamy, asked again and again to be let alone.  Brigham Young said, It’s not the prerogative of the fed gov to legislate my sexual behavior any more than to over see what I had for breakfast.  They wanted to be left alone. Rather different than the approach now [from the Church].

See also Parts 1 and 3.


  1. […] also Parts 2 and 3. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Notes from the Utah State Historical Society’s 56th Annual Conference, Part 1 — September 13, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

  2. Thanks again.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 14, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

  3. As always, great thanks.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 14, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

  4. Great job Jared.

    If I recall correctly it was Joseph F. Smith who in the Smoot hearings said he did not or had not received any revelations, see Paulos pages 33-34. Most Mormons, if not all saw this a lie for the Lord.

    I believe Grant was the one who said the heavens were like brass. I think Grant told this to someone in a letter and or prayer circle and then Musser wrote about Grant’s problem. In Hugh B. Brown’s interviews with Ed Firmage Brown remembers Grant telling him that he was not worthy to be prophet. Yet Brown also recalls Grant telling him about receiving revelation to call Melvin Ballard as a apostle.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — September 14, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

  5. Jared,

    I didn’t realize you’d done us the service of transcribing this most interesting dialog–many thanks.

    A minor correction. “Nathanael Ball” should be Nathaniel Baldwin. For more on this remarkable character, try:

    Baldwin’s journals and papers are at the UofU. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a dissertation on him, but they should. An acquaintance told me a story about visiting Baldwin as he was inventing the swamp cooler. I’d like to know if it’s true.

    Comment by Will Bagley — December 27, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

  6. Will, thank you for the correction. Baldwin does sound like an interesting character.

    Comment by Jared T — December 29, 2008 @ 6:24 am

  7. […] so I thought I’d put in a plug for it. I was able to attend last year (see my notes: part 1, part 2), and it was a splendid little conference.  Though I truly was surprised at how small and intimate […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Call For Papers: The 57th Annual Utah State History Conference, September 17-19, 2009 — March 2, 2009 @ 2:38 am


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