Passionate Stability: Polygamy, Dating, and the Creation of Modern Mormon Gender

By May 15, 2009

Admin: Guest post by Russell.

*A caveat: I am taking a conscious cue from Richard Hofstadter–this is a line of inquiry rather than a footnote-drenched piece of archive-based scholarship.

Brigham Young University appears to be the idyllic city on a hill–founded with the college-building impulse of American missionary zeal and molded to fit the Zion-building strain of Mormonism’s early days of development. Yet anyone who has lived on the campus–or even visited the campus–talks about the nascent “tension” that undergirds social relationships. One University of Minnesota professor of family studies called BYU one of the most “sexually charged” campuses he had ever visited [1]. In an era of facebook dating where it’s becoming less-common for adolescents to even approach women for their number let alone actually go through the routine of dinner-and-a-movie, BYU has become a bastion of romantic Christianity. Outsiders–even well-informed ones–cannot seem to place BYU properly on this spectrum. When discussing BYU dating with them, I have heard reactions ranging from shock that the Church doesn’t offer dispensations to college students to libertines to shock that we even dare “toucheth” a woman before marriage [2]. The stories of roommate intrigue, flirtations, break-ups, get-togethers are legion at BYU. What is the root of this odd blend of focused values with dynamic romance?

During the late 19th-century, polygamy marked the Mormons conceptions of romantic relationships more than any other characteristic It was a societal institution, Brigham Young argued, that was intended to enshrine the family as the central unit of the kingdom. Brigham maintained that in New York, for example, he “doubts whether there is one man in three who has a wife” [3]. Related to this drive for familial stability in the kingdom was also a push for romantic stability. With a standard Victorian overtone, George Q. Cannon noted that polygamy the church “steer into the curve” of the natural licentiousness of men: “the demands of nature,” George Q. Cannon wrote, should be met with “decency and propriety” [4] Belinda Pratt argued similarly when noting that it was primarily to appease the needs of carnal desires of men generally–an almost axiomatic conclusion of Victorian America. Polygamy existed because men were weak, not because they were domineering. If they are going to be driven by passion, then Mormon men should at least be held to account for it. Furthermore, as Kathryn Daynes has argued, Utah was a leading territory in its issuance of divorces; my own ancestor, considered at the time to be a pillar in the community, separated from his wife as she went on to marry his former mission companion, Ezra T. Clark. Utah’s laws were so liberal that attorneys in Illinois could file their clients’ divorces based solely on their stated desire to live in Utah at a later date. This system of marriage, in a strange way, almost delegitimized sexual relations as anything more than a necessary element of mortality–meant for procreation and for the satiation of men’s weakness. I credit this heritage of free-wheeling marital systems with the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of BYU dating.

Yet this same heritage has also given birth to the practicality with which many LDS now see marriage. Since polygamy’s demise, Mormon women have faced a crisis of femininity that their ancestors never faced. With the lack of “sister wives” to help in the chores and the decreased professionalization of Mormon women, twentieth-century modern Mormon women feel increased pressure to avoid investing themselves too deeply in a career lest they blur the lines between masculine and feminine in a post-polygamy world. Since polygamy, they have now assumed all the responsibilities that plural wives once shared

Men have similarly felt increased pressure to redefine their masculinity. Marital stability during the era of polygamy was often measured not only in the ability to provide but also by a man’s previous track record in marriage; one young woman was discouraged from marrying a never-married bachelor because he lacked experience. Since the demise of polygamy and the urbanization of the Church, Mormon men have needed to find new ways to express their stability other than the presence of previous wives or a landed estate. Therefore, they enter lucrative professions to ensure that their wives can live up to the Proclamation’s ideal of maternal duties. BYU has accommodated this societal transition by focusing its funding and growth on the two of the most lucrative departments in professional life–business and law school.

In essence, the demise of polygamy has required that men and women in the Church to redefine and specialize their masculinity/femininity in ways that their ancestors did not. Polygamy’s demise opened up a vacuum of marital meaning on Mormon youth. While the root cause of this shift rests in traditional explanations of the growth of big business and the legal profession in America, these trends have taken on a distinctively “marriage market” flavor in Mormon America. Polygamy has produced both a cutthroat culture of dating even as it produces bastions of middle-class stability.

[1] Quoted by Brent Barlow, Classroom lecture, BYU

[2] For a journalistic account of BYU dating, see Naomi Riley, God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America (New York: Macmillan, 2005), 15-33. Personal conversation with University of Kentucky professor and individual students.

[3] Kathryn Daynes, “Single Men in a Polygamous Society,” Journal of Mormon History 24(1): 89.

[4] Daynes, More Wives than One: The Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 39.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Uh, no. I think historical polygamy is so far removed from the present experience of BYU undergrads that its effect on their social life shrinks to nothingness. Who ever wonders if he can be the man that great-great-great-grandpa Ephraim was? I think you’re more likely to find the reasons for the characteristics of BYU social life in the twin requirements of maintaining chastity while finding a spouse.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — May 15, 2009 @ 8:37 am

  2. Fair enough. In a sense, I would agree–I never felt drawn to be like my ancestors Edward Stevenson or William Holmes Walker.

    However, I am not suggesting that this a conscious lived ideology. if I were, then you would indeed be correct. Rather, it’s a heritage of societal norms that BYU students accept without realizing their ideological roots. We do that all the time in the church–whether it’s by canonizing some off-handed quip by Joseph or justifying some belief in eternal marriage by coming with an ex post facto rationalization based on hokey Mormon musicals.

    Comment by Russell — May 15, 2009 @ 8:46 am

  3. Just out of curiosity, how did Barlow quantify his evaluation of the “sexually charged” nature of the BYU campus? That must have been an interesting meter.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 15, 2009 @ 9:25 am

  4. An interesting meter indeed! The text indicates that it was a University of Minnesota professor who called it that. When I think of it, I just think of living in Twilight-land where people want to hook up–really badly–but as Jonathan noted, they also have to keep the law of chastity. So you end up seeing the expressions of these desires in alternative, suppressed ways (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing…the more optimistic among us might call the suppression mere “coping mechanisms” or better yet, “discipline-building exercises”)

    Comment by Russell — May 15, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  5. Sex, gender, polygamy, and modern Mormon dating? An ambitious first post, Russ. 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — May 15, 2009 @ 9:57 am

  6. Interesting post. I think you some interesting questions about Mormon Victorian values and how our post-polygamy culture shapes those values. Hard to quantify–most thought experiments are–but neither should we flippantly dismiss the questions either.

    Comment by David G. — May 15, 2009 @ 10:16 am

  7. Interesting points. I have to agree with Jonathan, as someone just emerging from the “cutthroat culture of dating” at BYU (and singly, I should add) that the influence of polygamy is approximately nil and that we should look elsewhere to explain the “charged” environment (although I always wonder, when I hear this, how much of it is in the, uh…eye of the beholder). And while polygamy, I’m sure, had a hand in upending conceptions of sex, marriage, and dating among early LDS, and while I’m often amazed at the foreignness of familiar life in the early church, I wonder if the practice of polygamy was indeed widespread, pervasive, and transformative enough to cause a full-scale rewriting of sexual culture.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 15, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  8. First, proofread your post, dude!

    Second, what about the effect on people now of learning about our polygamous past? Perhaps the link between polygamy and the BYU dating scene (NICMO…) is not so much an unconscious passed-down societal pattern thing as a result of young men learning that polygamy used to be OK and concluding that life really is about hooking up with as many girls as possible or something like that. So instead of the past itself affecting the present indirectly, teaching about the past affects the present directly.

    Comment by Owen — May 15, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  9. Ryan:

    Fair points…but also having emerged from BYU’s smoldering masses recently, I saw rampant serial monogamy with on-again, off-again engagements pervading the campus. Read the chapter in God on the Quad about BYU to get an outsider’s perspective on it.

    While this might sound like typical college life, the difference here is that folks took their prospects seriously and (generally speaking) not as random hook-ups. True, we cannot dismiss the elephant of suppressed desires; however, I am convinced that Latter-day Saints take dating as a structure so seriously that we view the individuals we are dating as less important than the fact that we are dating. The abundance of choices at BYU leads to the devaluation of individual relationships. It’s precisely the same phenomenon that took place in pioneer Utah where men would marry women several years their senior who didn’t speak English if only just so they could marry. In other cases, men would marry or get engaged rather recklessly (whether due to outside pressure or perceived revelation) to women they did not love, believing that they could find a favorite wife later on.

    Comment by Russell — May 15, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  10. I’m with Jonathan #1.

    Russell, your #9 brings up interesting points, I think more compelling than the initial round of evidence. But I still think that this is a kind of case of confusing correlation with causation. Just because we see behavior patterns that are somehow similar to polygamist days, doesn’t mean that one was inherited from the other. I see no chain of provenance between them.

    The manic emphasis on dating can be explained by: (1) chastity until marriage, (2) the fact that we are increasingly diaspora-like, and many people view BYU as their last/best unique opportunity to land a spouse because of the high concentration of potential mates, (3) they are constantly told getting a great spouse is the Most Important Thing Ever by church leaders, (4) we tend to marry young so adding to the urgency is a sense that the good ones are fast running out as time passes, especially for women due to demographics of church being greater percent of women.

    Polygamist times would have had different causes for the same manic behavior, for example the sense of “good ones are fast running out” in this case is caused by the opposite demographic problem–more than 1 woman per man means women are a scarce resource. So we have similar results from different circumstances.

    Comment by sister blah 2 — May 15, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

  11. I’m agreed with sb2 that the issues in #9 are different than (and more persuasive than) those raised initially, but still can’t make out the precise parallel you point out between pioneer days and dating culture at the Y. Seem like distinct situations, different kinds of discontent.

    You do have a point about dating as a structure, and I agree that there’s a fixation there. The perpetual counsel to date and marry gets amplified by sexual tensions and immaturity until it takes over. Implied in that counsel is an understanding that dating and marriage proceed on a foundation of deep concern for and about individuals and individual relationships. Unfortunately that’s an implication that we too often miss.

    Comment by Ryan T — May 15, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  12. For some reason, this post reminds me of a post I did at M* awhile ago.

    Your quotation:

    Brigham maintained that in New York, for example, he ?doubts whether there is one man in three who has a wife?

    is very similar to something written by a New York lawyer in an 1890 utopian novel. You can go to my post (linked above) for the full context, but here’s the relevant quote from the novel (they are spoken by a prostitute discussing a politician who attacked Mormons in order to get votes):

    ?Well, there was one; and he is the worst man in the city; a worse than Mormon. But what I was going to say is, the real question is, not whether Mormonism will destroy civilization by increasing the number of men having more than one wife; for the tendency isn?t that way. The question is, will bachelors destroy it through having no wives, but one or no wife, is what should come before the country as a serious question. You have no idea of the utter loneliness of the good and virtuous but poor woman in this city. They live lives of constant temptations; struggle on with the utmost heroism, year after year, and with no sign of getting their natural rewards for it; for husbands are not forthcoming.?

    So, Brigham was, I think, repeating conventional wisdom of the era, rather than making a uniquely Mormon critique of society.

    Whether that addresses the central concern of this post or not, I leave to others.

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — May 15, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

  13. The discontent and causes may well have been radically different. I’m suggesting only that this angst–whatever its source–makes a place for a striking similarity in free-wheeling dating/marriage that thrived in pioneer Utah. I have a close relative, for example, that went on a date with another girl the same weekend that he proposed.

    Comment by Russell — May 15, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  14. Russell, all through my mission, I was told by companions to go to BYU, and I would be married within 6 mos. I headed as fast as I could back to CA.
    But I guess my real question is, does this “crazy” BYU system work? Does it led to a better than average rate of good marriages? It seems to (?)

    Comment by Bob — May 15, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

  15. FWIW, in my experience the dating culture in Wasatch Front young single adult wards isn’t that much different from that described at BYU. In some ways, it may be worse.

    As a particularly irritating characteristic, one has to be extremely careful not to give members of the opposite sex the wrong idea, so much so that the pressure to date and find a partner leads to considerable amount of outright incivility.

    The second thing is that unless you have some other basis for friendship, one will be fortunate in many cases if someone you have asked out on a date will so much as speak to you after it becomes clear there will not be a second.

    In other words, the fastest way to destroy even a semblance of friendship is to ask someone on a date. One might well wonder why LDS one-on-one dating is on the decline…

    Comment by Mark D. — May 17, 2009 @ 1:11 am


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