With the new polygamy essays out, I’ve heard and seen a number of comments along the lines of “we can maybe wrap our brains around this, but how in the world are we supposed to explain this to our children?” Good question. I, like probably a lot of bloggernacle folks, have tried to make it a point to go over various often undressed points of early Mormon history my my kids (like the seer stone) but I had neglected polygamy. This neglect was brought to my attention one summer after my then twelve-year-old son had returned from a trip to California to spend a week with his non-Mormon friends. He informed us that they had been razzing him about polygamy, something he knew nothing about. My wife and I started into a basic explanation of how we used to practice this but no more when he cut us off by asking, “But it was wrong, right?”
Good question. Many might have answered that question “yes,” but that isn’t my personal view. So I pulled him aside and gave him an overview of this: an idea that I’ve now expanded in my dissertation. I basically said, “Originally Joseph Smith married married women. Men and women could have multiple spouses as a way to be bound to each other and as a way to have all things in common. But there were problems. People didn’t like it, so they switched to polygyny or just men being able to have multiple spouses. That lasted a while until the government really cracked down and we stopped. Though we continued to practiced it a little bit after that.” (I wanted to cover all my bases). After I pause I asked. “So what do you think?”
He nodded sort of knowingly and said, “Yeah, that makes sense. People don’t like to share. They’re always messing things up.”
I then apologized that I hadn’t discussed this with him earlier and he said “No, that’s okay. Just as long as you’re available to explain things when I have questions.” I felt pretty good about the exchange.
But I never had any more discussions with my kids about polygamy after that until the new essays came out. Then I thought I had better make an attempt to discuss this with my thirteen-year-old daughter. So I asked her if she knew anything about the church practicing polygamy and she said, “I know it’s something that misinformed people will bring up about the church.” I told her that the church did used to practice it but not any more.
“Oh,” she said nonchalantly.
“Do you have any questions?” I asked.
“No. I know the church doesn’t practice it any more. I know the church says that women are equal.” And then she shrugged as though that was all that mattered.
“Are you sure?” I continued.
“Why are you pushing this?” she asked.
“Because we used to practice it, and so people usually have questions.”
“I don’t,” she said and that was the end of it.