http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org ... -polygamy/
A Personal History of Polygamy
christer1979 October 25, 2014 Mormon Miscellanea
I’m a tween-aged Mormon girl in a Southern town where Baptist churches still show The Godmakers. I have always known Joseph Smith and early church members practiced polygamy. I get asked how many moms I have all the time; how could I not know?
I am 10 years old, kneeling with my family for prayer before we eat dinner. Somehow polygamy comes up. My dad jokes that he hopes he never has to practice it because it’s hard enough keeping one woman happy. But he looks at my mother with deep affection, and I’m relieved he doesn’t want another wife.
I’m in the 6th grade, and like a good member missionary, I’m talking about my church to a friend. She asks about polygamy, and I explain that we totally don’t practice it anymore. Only crazy fundamentalists in the Utah desert still do. But after all, the Old Testament has several prophets who had more than one wife—there is precedent. My friend, the only Buddhist I know, nods as though this makes sense to her. Because she doesn’t tell me that I’m going to hell or that I’m not a real Christian, I consider this a victory.
I am 11, and as we so often do, my parents are telling us stories about our ancestors as we gather round for Family Home Evening. This time I hear a rather unusual detail: My ancestor married a widow to help take care of her family as they crossed the plains. Later, in Utah, he married the widow’s daughter, the woman I’m descended from. Even for polygamist Utah, mother-daughter sister-wives are a bit much. The family becomes very concerned with social niceties and appearances for generations after (though apparently this has dwindled in the intervening generations, as I am a stubborn tomboy who couldn’t care less).
I’m 12, and polygamy was mentioned at church, and I’m starting to feel definitely weirded out. How could my prophet and my family have participated in something so foreign? My mother responds by talking about her sister, whose husband died unexpectedly in his early 30s. “When I see how alone she is, how difficult it is to make ends meet and take care of her kids, I think I understand polygamy better. In a way, I wish I could share your dad with her to help her out.” This still seems a little odd–surely there are other ways to take care of widows?–but my mother is speaking out of the depths of her heart, so I nod as if it all makes sense.
I’m 13 and at Girls Camp. I cannot remember when I learned this song from my mother, who shared it with some embarrassment herself. But I take no small delight in shocking my camp mates with it. It’s set to the tune of Sleeping Beauty’s “Someday My Prince Will Come,” but the words go, “Someday my prince will come / in the Millennium / How happy I will be / when he asks me to be number three!” We giggle in horror, so glad to be living after the Manifesto.
I’m 14, and our Miamaid class is having another lesson on eternal marriage. Polygamy comes up (I never can remember how), and my friend jokes, “I could only be polygamous if I were the prettiest wife.” Our leader, who I adore, jokes, “I could only be polygamous if I were the head wife.” Everyone laughs, because we know it’s not going to be asked of us again, right?
I’m 15, packed in a car with other youth on the three hour trek to the Houston temple to do baptisms for the dead. On the drive, the leaders try to chat with the youth and be good, accessible role models. I can’t remember how it comes up, but I do remember my bishop (a Utah transplant to the Bible Belt, just like my family) calmly asserting that everyone in the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom will practice polygamy. This is the first I’ve heard of that idea, and my stomach curls in on itself. But he seems faithfully unshaken by the notion. In my heart, I just can’t agree, but I can’t say that out loud, either. I tuck my certainty away, a shield to bring out if anyone else tells me my reward for righteousness will be plural marriage.
I’m 16, serving a three-day mini-mission in my stake. As I tract with my temporary companion, an older man declares, “Oh no, I know who you are. I saw that special on TV. I can’t join with any church that has men marrying multiple wives.” My companion kindly explains that we don’t practice polygamy anymore, and besides, she insists that plural marriage was something to take care of the widows in that time. It’s clear she doesn’t know much about the topic, but her conviction is comforting to me at least.
Somewhere in my youth, someone explains that polygamy will be required because women are so much more righteous than men (just look around!) and so there will clearly be more women than men in the Celestial Kingdom. I start coming up with ways women are not so righteous, how gossip and other stereotypically female flaws more often hurt people than violence or other stereotypically male flaws. I tell myself that I opposed this notion of women’s inherent righteousness because it’s just unfair to men. But at the core of my vehemence is the conviction that plural marriage in heaven is no reward for righteousness on earth.
I’m 19, and I go with my freshman BYU friends to Temple Square. We watch the film Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration, and I’m moved at the sacrifices of this man. I’m touched by his relationship with Emma. There is no mention of his other wives, and I don’t even notice. I don’t want to notice. I don’t want there to be other wives needing omission for this polished narrative.
I’m a missionary in western Europe. I spend far more time defending the notions of God and Jesus Christ than I ever do Joseph Smith—a welcome change from my youth in the Bible Belt. My testimony of Joseph strengthens as I read the amazing doctrines that he taught, that were revealed through him. I never read Doctrines and Covenants 132 all the way through.
In my last area on my mission, I have a dinner appointment at a prominent family’s home. The husband had converted to Mormonism with his wife during his first marriage. After she passed away very unexpectedly, he remarried. His second wife is now a member of the church. They prominently display a photo of the deceased wife, and the living wife tears up speaking about her . “I’m so grateful for her and her willingness to accept the gospel. Without her, I would never have learned about the church.” She acknowledges that this might sound odd, that people might expect her to be jealous, but she’s genuinely looking forward to meeting this woman in the next life. I try to understand this selfless gratitude.
I’m 23, finally a returned missionary, sitting in the second half of my BYU religion class on the Doctrine and Covenants. We’ve come to section 132 in the syllabus. One female student comments that when she was engaged, her husband asked her if she would be willing to practice polygamy if it were ever restored. A male student raises his hand, saying he had the same conversation with his wife. It was really important for him to know she would follow the principle and be obedient. Our professor smiles and encourages us not to worry about something that hasn’t been asked of us and may never be. I pretend to be appalled at the unnecessary concerns these people have over a long-discontinued practice, but that night I tell my fiancé, “If I die, I want you to remarry, but try to fall in love with someone who is already sealed to another man, okay?”
In my Doctrine and Covenants course at BYU, my professor says, “Feminist scholars say they love what happened in Utah in the 1800s and they hate what happened in Utah. Polygamy is hard for people to understand. But ironically, it also allowed many women to travel East and go to school while their sister wives took care of their children.” I am deeply intrigued by this wrinkle in the narrative of polygamy.
I’m two months shy of my wedding, having yet another argument about polygamy with my fiancé. “I don’t want to have multiple wives!” he exclaims. “I love you! But if God asks that of us, how can I say no? I need to be obedient.”
I’m 24, taking a Women and Folklore class at BYU. We’re reading a folklore study of a plural wife in southern Utah in the late 1800s. We read that shortly after the birth of her first child, the woman’s husband marries the serving girl who had come to help the family during the pregnancy. We also watch a one woman play about Emmeline B. Wells. Being a plural wife had seemed to provide for her when she was young. And I’m tickled by the idea of her proposal to one of the most prominent men in Salt Lake City when she was older and needed financial support. Maybe polygamy isn’t so bad. A classmate bears her testimony of it, so to speak, because her ancestor was a Danish convert who couldn’t speak any English, travelling alone to Zion. Marrying upon her arrival into a plural marriage kept her alive.
I’m 24, sitting in a BYU class. My professor, a convert, describes how her husband went inactive shortly after they were sealed in the temple. She mentions that it was her neighbors, Bill and Susy [names changed], a lovely couple their age, who introduced them to the church. With disgust, she tells us about the day Bill assured her that if her own husband never returned to the church, Bill would look behind every cloud in heaven to find her. Needless to say, the relationship with the neighbors is never the same. We all feel very bad for Bill’s wife.
I am an MTC teacher, and my wonderful lovable missionaries hardly ever talk about doubt. One sister missionary is different. As she’s practicing the vocabulary to testify of the restoration, she says, “Is it all right if I say I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet instead I know?” I say yes, but what’s holding her back? “I read somewhere that he lied about polygamy, and I feel really uncomfortable about that.” I have not been trained to address this, not as a member, not as a missionary, not as an MTC teacher. It doesn’t surprise me, but how do I resolve her concern? I grasp for straws. “You know, maybe it was like Abraham. He was commanded to lie about Sarah being his sister instead his wife to protect his life, right? Maybe God also commanded Joseph to keep his marriage secret.” I have just condoned lying for the Lord. And my sister missionary seems very comforted by this notion. I still need to apologize to her for this.
I’m chatting with a fellow graduate student about thorny church issues that have played their part in so many of my friends leaving the church. My friend mentions the poor widowers being sealed to a second wife after the first dies, and how could anyone object to that? How could we insist he choose between them? But I cling to the rumors I’ve heard that after all parties are deceased, a woman who had had multiple husbands can be sealed to them all. It’s not quite parity, but it’s close, and I have become so willing to settle for close enough if I can just maintain my community, my testimony, my belonging in this tribe.
I’m at BYU, and I run into a former classmate who’s back at the Y to teach summer courses on church history. That day, his class covered polygamy. He’s wondering if he did okay in telling these young students about Fanny Alger and Helen Marr Kimball. “There was a kid there who’s not LDS, and he asked me how exactly Joseph Smith is any different from Warren Jeffs. I didn’t have any good answers.” I nod sagely, as if I’d always known about these young brides, assuring my friend his inoculation approach is wise. But I shelve and I bury and I hide from these stories.
I’m at my BYU job and chatting with an intern I supervise. Somehow polygamy comes up. (Why does it always come up when we LDS women talk?) My friend mentions that on her mission, she had asked her mission president about polygamy because she found it so disheartening. Her president pulled out a curated PowerPoint explaining why polygamy was required. She was shocked to learn that polygamy will be practiced by those in the highest levels of the Celestial Kingdom, by the couples who go on to becomes gods. “After all,” he explains, “how could they have so many spirit children without multiple spirit mothers?” We both are appalled. She is relieved to find someone else who just doesn’t believe that.
I’m 25, and my husband is out with friends, so I take some alone time to read D&C 132. There are the highlighted verses about eternal marriage, the new and everlasting covenant, the verses I studied in seminary and shared on my mission. But there are other verses with uncomfortable verbs, like “destroy” and “rule over.” These words don’t feel like the voice of the Lord. They feel like threats, a way to make Emma accept polygamy because God, through her husband, says so. I cannot feel God in this. I cannot feel right about this. This is scripture, not some anti-Mormon website, but I’ve never felt so shaken about my faith. My trust starts to crumble, and I weep, and I weep, and I weep.
I’m in grad school and starting to get fairly involved in online Mormon feminism, and I can’t hide forever. I come across accusations against Joseph and Brigham and all the early patriarchs. I hear about the young marriages to teenagers, the promises of eternal salvation for the bride’s family if only she’ll say yes. I learn about polyamory, about women whose husbands are on missions or not Mormon marrying Joseph. I learn about how Emma was heartbroken, lied to, how she used Relief Society to track down polygamy. How Brigham disbanded Relief Society when they saints moved to Utah. I tell myself these might be distortions, I start to organize a book group to read everything, I promise myself I’ll research these things. But I can’t bear to. Instead, I tell myself that even if they are true, well, even prophets are flawed, and that doesn’t diminish the truths that were restored. I cope with it all in theory, still holding out that maybe if I just actually study it, read the historical records, learn more, I’ll understand how this all fits. There must just be something about it I don’t understand! But just in case it never fits, I start to view my testimony as a conglomeration of individual truths rather than an all-or-nothing venture, because only the former will allow me to find peace and still maintain my belief in the church.
I’m on the phone with a trusted friend, the kind who can stomach my feminist angst. We talk about what helps us stay. “I really really love Jesus,” I say, trying to anchor myself there. She responds, “You know, I actually really am drawn to Joseph. I can’t relate to Christ–he’s perfect. But Joseph had flaws and was human. I can relate to that.” I think of the flaws that have been haunting my thoughts lately, of Joseph’s secret marriages and young brides and women already married. I change the subject.
I’m 27, and I have the kindest mother in the world, and she asks if I will explain to her why the temple is hard for me now. The topic turns to polygamy, and she pushes me on why it is so awful to me. “When are you happiest in your marriage? If our truest joy comes from what we give in our relationships, from making others happy, then wouldn’t that still be possible in polygamy? Wouldn’t we be giving even more, and get to see how that makes other people happy?” And for her, I believe this is possible. After decades of marriage and motherhood and church service, with a heart as kind and true as my mother’s, I see that maybe plural marriage could work out. But I know it would break me, and I fight the shame of not being righteous and generous enough to accept polygamy.
I’m 28 and my younger brother is getting married. I pay extra attention to the words of the sealing, wondering how different they might be, how parallel they might be, if we had never practiced polygamy.
I’m 28, married four years, working my first real job after school. The church’s website publishes three new essays on polygamy, and my newsfeed is plastered with commentary. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before, except this time it’s confirmed by the church itself. I’m surprised at how much they include. I’m not surprised that it is all defended as sanctioned by God. I field urgent messages from younger friends who ask me how I deal, and I leave encouraging voicemails and Facebook messages. I can be their model of practical faith, of not throwing away all the beautiful truths but also not accepting polygamy or the priesthood and temple ban if they offend my soul and conscience. I can encourage faith even as I listen with empathy to their outrage and anger and grief and fear, so much fear. I can hold space for this tension, for these ambiguities, and not walk away. My testimony is no longer a row of dominoes that all fall into place if I feel good when I read the Book of Mormon, but I’ve never valued individual truths so deeply and personally.
The next day, I break into tears four different times, just thinking about the Law of Sarah, and the threats of destruction in D&C 132, and the heartache sister wives endured, and the latent fear nearly every Mormon woman I know lives with. Because now that these uncomfortable truths are acknowledged and stamped with divine approval, I wonder how many women will tell themselves it would be just if their husband took other wives, even if they disagreed. That it would be just if their 14-year-old daughter is married to a man in his 30s, if it be the will of the Lord. That it would be just to be married to a man not your husband if your own spouse is not measuring up. I cry because even though I don’t feel beholden to accept these precedents as precedents, I know so many women who will, because if they don’t, if they question out loud, what will happen to their family relationships and community ties and standing before God? If I question this out loud, even though I maintain my temple recommend and fulfill my calling, is there still room for me in my church? (And if I’m so agonized over this, what on earth do my LGBTQ friends feel, or my friends who are told their great-grandparents could not have been sealed in the temple or ordained to the priesthood?) So I weep before my husband, and I finally say out loud that I’m afraid I will lose my community if I can’t accept polygamy. I finally say out loud this pain I’ve spent a lifetime trying to ignore, even as it came up over and over again.
And the next day, at a book group with BYU grad school friends, I can’t help but ask if anyone has read the essays. We discuss the implications and the admissions. One friend has not heard these rumors before. “I don’t understand how to make this work,” she says. “Spiritually, emotionally… how do I make this work?” We have nothing of substance to say. “Honestly, I just ignore it,” says an older friend.
But I can’t ignore it anymore. This is not the same as shelving. This is letting go of trying to make polygamy seem right, fair, consistent, or necessary–not as it is described in our history. I’d rather believe in a God that values the autonomy and agency of his daughters as highly as those of his sons than a God that uses threats of destruction to enforce polygamy through imperfect leaders with no consistently evident purpose. I decide that right now, I will not sacrifice my relationship to a just and merciful God on the altar of polygamy and trusting my leaders, because I don’t know how to believe in both. Maybe I will someday, but maybe I never will. I will respect the sacrifices my foremothers and forefathers made, but I will not weep over polygamy any more.