Susan Gerhart, Nederland. “I would never ever, worlds without end, even if I could control all events, willingly go back to being a monogamous wife.” Anonymous plural wife.
Joseph Smith formally organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, and soon thereafter took his second wife. It should be noted that Smith’s first wife, Emma, never came to terms with this and subsequent such arrangements. In 1852, polygamy became a principle of the LDS religion only to be officially renounced in 1890 when Utah sought statehood.
Today the Latter-day Saints (also referred to as Mormons) are known as an industrious and family-oriented group, but public fascination, undoubtedly much of which is prurient, with their polygamous history and its contemporary practice by offshoots of the church, remains high.
In Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer takes readers inside some of the isolated Mormon Fundamentalist communities where polygamy is still practiced. It is a frightening tale of violence and messianic delusion with women and young girls having no control over their own lives.
David Ebershoff fictionalizes the account of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s 19th and final wife, in 19th Wife. Unthinkably, Ann separates from Brigham which leads to her excommunication from the church and life as an outcast. Intertwined with Ann’s story is the contemporary story of Jordan Scott, one of the lost boys thrown out of his polygamous community when he becomes a threat to the older men who are intent on keeping the young women for themselves. We follow Ann as she begins a campaign to end polygamy and Jordan when he returns to his roots to solve his father’s murder. The most memorable scene in the book is when Ann encounters Brigham on the street after their marriage, and he doesn’t recognize her.
Golden Richards, the protagonist of Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, has four wives, twenty-eight children, and is overcome with the complexities of running his construction business and households. The carefully planned house he built for three of his wives has turned into a nightmare of running, screaming children whom he silently names each time they run past, afraid that he will forget one . . . or more. Golden is a good and faithful man who is doing his best, but it seems not to be enough. He fears he is losing himself.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich suggests there was another side to polygamy in A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870. Ulrich brings together more than two dozen nineteenth-century diaries, letters, albums, minute-books, and quilts left by first-generation Latter-day Saints, into stories of the first women to enter into plural LDS marriages. These first-person accounts reflect strong pioneer women who enjoyed the benefits of plural marriage. Furthermore, many campaigned against the law to outlaw polygamy, stating that women had the right to determine whom they would marry and with whom they would bear children. Under the influence of these women, Utah enfranchised women fifty years before the United States did.
It is estimated that 40,000 people in the United States live in plural marriages, and polygamy is practiced by about one-third of the people in the world. Most of the arrangements are abusive to women, but not all. In certain cultures, the first wife will work to help her husband acquire a second wife. Some help around the house and with kids.
See you around the stacks.