Polygamy, second generation

Joseph Smith first introduced polygamy in 1831, shortly after he established the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Depending on your view point, he either was commanded by God to marry dozens of women, and he did so reluctantly, or he really wanted a lot of wives and he used religion as an excuse to obtain them.

Joseph had his closest allies, such as Brigham Young and John Taylor, who became the next two prophets and presidents of the Church after Smith was killed, take extra wives as well. In 1835, Smith published a revelation from God that condemned polygamy, even while he was practicing it. The leaders of the Church began expanding the practice, even as they publicly denied it, and more and more men and women were encouraged, at times coerced, to enter polygamy. There is evidence that shows Smith, and others, used coercion, or their influence as church leaders, to marry women, some who were already married to other men.

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It wasn’t until 1852, when the Mormons were settled in Utah (then not part of the United States) that Brigham Young publicly acknowledged polygamy, and then made it a standard practice. Young, who had more than 40 wives, talked about it as a divine principle; one man spreading his time, money, attention, and energy among the number of wives he took in. Members were taught that in order to be holy and in good standing, they had to participate, and if they didn’t want to, they were called selfish or sinners; all faithful members should want to enter these complicated family systems because it is what God wanted.

The United States was outraged, and began to work tirelessly to shut down polygamy in all United States territories (as Utah wouldn’t become a state until 1896). In 1862, polygamy was deemed officially illegal, but the Mormons thought their religious status protected their rights to practice it. The case went to the Supreme Court, and in 1878 it was deemed that even for religious institutions, polygamy was illegal. But by this time, there were thousands upon thousands of families in Utah practicing polygamy. And men as they aged continued taking young virginal wives, some 14 and 15 years old marrying men in their 60s and 70s. But it wasn’t until 1890 that the fourth Mormon prophet, Wilford Woodruff, publicly stated to Mormons that polygamy shouldn’t be practiced. But families were now into their third generation of polygamy; children who were born into polygamous households now had grandchildren becoming fourth wives. And polygamy was still being practiced. In 1904, the Church again had to remind members not to practice polygamy anymore, but it still continued happening, and then again in 1920, the Church finally made it grounds for excommunication. By this point, polygamy had been practiced for approximately 90 years, and it continues to exist in many communities in 2016.

Ida Hunt was born in a central Utah town in 1858. In 1882, she became the second wife of David Udall, a local church leader who already had a wife, Ella. David and Ella were reluctant to be polygamous, but a personal letter from the prophet of the church, John Taylor, told David that he wasn’t setting a good example for the Mormons who followed him, and told him that all Church leaders were expected to be polygamous. So David married Ida in 1882 . Ida became pregnant. And then David, by all accounts a good man, went to jail for polygamy. Ella was left with her children without support, and Ida had to go into hiding with her daughter so they couldn’t use her as a witness against David.

Doing the math here, it was four years AFTER the United States declared polygamy illegal even in religious institutions that the Mormon prophet was encouraging/coercing leaders to take more wives. And 8 years after the marriage of Ida and David that the Church first said it was no longer a sanctioned practice. I recently read Ida’s published journals, her accounts of living on her own, without support or husband, for years as she had to stay hidden while trying to provide for a child. President Grover Cleveland eventually pardoned David, and Ida named her first son after the president. She ultimately had six children. She spent the next few decades, strained financially and having problems with Ella, and David struggled financially with both. Ida died in 1910 of a stroke, far too young. David and Ella ended up married for 50 years before their deaths.

Reading her words, I was struck by her thoughts about the United States government. She expressed again and again how she felt Satan was influencing the government, forcing adversity against God’s Saints, forcing prejudices against the holy order of polygamy. These beliefs were backed up by her local leaders. She never once saw the institution as illegal or morally wrong, because she had been raised believing it was right.

I was raised Mormon. Polygamy was always something in the shadows. Mormons still believe it to be an eternal principle, something that will be practiced in Heaven, men with multiple wives. They tone it down to soften the blow, saying things like it is only in place so that women who never got a chance to have husbands will get the chance in Heaven. All that said, nearly every Mormon I know is a little disturbed by the practice; it elicits discomfort and sadness when it comes up in conversation.

At the same time, I see the same defense mechanisms that Ida had in place with Mormons today as well. I hear excuses about how Satan is influencing the government to do things like make gay marriage legal, and how Mormons have it right with traditional and Celestial families. These same arguments were likely used during the Civil Rights era, and during the “women’s liberation” movement.

Ultimately, though, the Church comes around. Polygamy was declared illegal, blacks were given the Priesthood, and in time, gay marriages will be allowed, in some measure that will allow the Church to save face.

What makes me most upset, however, are the lives lost in the balance. The young mother hiding with her child while her husband is in jail, the black child growing up believing he is less than his white peers, the gay couple keeping their relationship a secret so they won’t be excommunicated. The consequences of these teachings in family last entire lifetimes, and in the generations that follow. Even now, there are thousands upon thousands of families engaging in polygamy secretly, feeling it is their religious obligation to do so, and blaming the government for persecuting them.

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Interview with a polygamist

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I never really planned on being a third wife. It just kind of happened that way. After my first marriage fell apart, I just… I needed some comfort. I confided in some friends about how difficult my life was as a single parent. I grew closer and closer to them. And when they invited me to be a part of their family, it just made sense to me. 

Let’s start closer to the beginning. Did you grow up Mormon?

Yes, I grew up in a very Mormon family. But the Mormons don’t practice polygamy. I mean, they used to. 

So more a traditional Mormon family, then. In Utah?

Yeah, small town in central Utah. Very Mormon family, very Mormon community. I’m still Mormon, by the way. Just more a variation of all that. 

Tell me more about that.

Back in the beginning, the Church was restored to the Earth and the leaders said they were prophets and apostles and that they spoke for God. They formed entire communities, like Nauvoo, Illinois, and then Salt Lake City, and the leaders were leaders in both government and church. So when they said to go on a mission, the men went on missions, leaving their families for years. And when the church said no coffee, everyone stopped drinking coffee. And if you didn’t listen, you were disobedient, and usually excommunicated, which meant that you couldn’t go to the highest level of Heaven with your family. 

Go on.

So the early leaders of the church told everyone that God wanted the men to marry multiple women. In some cases, that meant a man had two wives, and in some cases, it meant literally dozens of wives. 

That sounds intense.

What do you mean?

Well, the dynamics of that alone. Church/faith communities where men are encouraged to take multiple wives. The household dynamics of women having to share a husband. Who has seniority, who gets along. The pressure on the man to provide for everyone, and the pressure on the women to set aside any concerns and share their man so that they could show their faith. And then, if you didn’t go along with it, you would be kicked out Heaven. Intense.

Yeah, some of those old stories make me really sad. Men would get married at 20 and have a few children. Then as their wife’s body began to change as she went through childbirth a few times, he would find a new young wife, then another and another. Then the same thing would happen with her, and the next. And all those children, I can barely keep track of my three!

Yeah, two kids is plenty for me to be responsible for. I can barely afford my rent and the costs of two. Can you imagine the medical costs for a family of 75? Food, housing, toys, school? That makes my head spin.

And some of the old stories, like men in their sixties marrying girls who were 17. Abuse and rape. A few accounts in the early days of Joseph Smith approaching some of his friend’s wives to be with him.

Women seen as commodities, that only had value as long as they were pretty and child-bearing, it seems like.

Well, I wouldn’t say they didn’t have value. But, yeah, they were supposed to clean the house and raise the kids and that was it. Anyway, the Church had thousands and thousands of families in polygamy relationships for a bunch of decades.

You would think there would be more men than women… where would all the men find more wives?

I have no idea. The Church went on like this until the early 1900s, when they officially disavowed the practice due to pressure from the government. And then things got tricky, because God had supposedly revealed polygamy. They were now three or four generations into it, and the Church started teaching that while polygamy is still something that will happen in Heaven, we can’t do it on Earth anymore. 

So did you know about polygamy growing up?

Only a little bit. It’s something that we barely talked about. Most people in my family and in the Mormon church kind of just don’t like to talk about it. They just focus on the parts of the Church that they like. It’s kind of like how Americans talk about slavery; they see it as something that was part of the past but don’t really want to dwell on it. 

It’s getting harder to ignore these days, though. All of the media attention to the Warren Jeffs case and the FLDS, and the Big Love show. All the media reports and documentaries.

Exactly. So I was a faithful Mormon girl and married in the temple to a returned missionary and we had a couple kids, but he had health issues and he was a huge jerk. And he stepped out on me a lot, and we fought and it was ugly, and after almost twenty years of that, we were both tired of pretending, and so we divorced. And I was single for a while. And then, last year, I became a third wife. 

Okay, so take me a back just a little bit. Your new husband and your new sister-wives, tell me about them, are they Mormon?

Actually, yeah. There are still pockets of polygamists all around, especially in Utah. Neighborhoods and schools, sometimes whole towns. Way more than people think. I mean, the man can only legally marry one woman, but there are spiritual wedding ceremonies performed to multiple women in lots of cases. Some of these groups belong to branches off the LDS Church, like the FLDS, where they have their own prophets and apostles. And some of them are still part of the main Church, they believe in Thomas Monson as the current prophet and they go to Church every week, but they lead polygamist lives because they think its part of their own salvation, something God commands. They just can’t tell anyone about it. 

So your congregation knows your husband is married to his first wife, but you and the second wife are just seen as single women and mothers in the ward?

Actually, yeah. We get pressure put on us, she and I, to find men and get married, but we just smile and say we are too busy or we can’t find the right person. But we are actually married, just not like they think. 

Is there anyone in your life who knows about you being a third wife?

Very few people. My mom found out and she won’t talk to me. My teenage daughter told her, and we had a huge fight. A few of my close friends know, and they are sweet to me. But most people wouldn’t understand. 

So tell me about your family.

That’s the million dollar question. My husband and his first wife married young. They met at BYU and were very happy together. They had a few children as he graduated and started working, and they bought their first house. No one in their family is polygamist, but they shared a love for old church teachings together. Eventually they decided together that they wanted a second wife together. They found a community of Saints who are very private and practice polygamy. And then they found the second wife, and courted her together. They weren’t really looking for a third wife, but I grew very close to them and they surprised me by offering the idea. They brought me and my kids into the family and we’ve been together ever since. 

How do the dynamics work in the family?

Well, we spend every Sunday together as one family unit. Otherwise we alternate evenings. He works, and we all work, so family in the evenings. I see him two nights per week on a rotating schedule, Monday/Tuesday, Wednesday/Thursday, or Friday/Saturday. We stay in contact online the rest of the time. It’s actually very seamless for us. We all love this life. 

You were referencing the old order earlier, and how women were victimized and marginalized–

Let me interrupt you there. I’ve given this a lot of thought. There is an enormous difference between expecting women and men to be polygamous, and having consenting adults choose this life. We are raising our children, both sons and daughters, to be free thinkers and to choose the lives they want for themselves. We have no expectation that they will join us in polygamy. We don’t condone the actions of men like Warren Jeffs. This is a life that works for us, and not for others. It works because our husband is a just and good man, and we all love him and believe in this life for us.