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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my date with mom

“Don’t worry, sir, I’ll have her home at a reasonable hour.” I shook my step-father’s hand from where he sat in his comfortable over-sized arm chair. He got that mirthful twinkle in his eye.

“Now see that you do.”

My mom laughed, saying goodbye to her husband as we made our way toward the door. She’s in her early 70s now, and he in his early 80s, and they have been perfect together in  their eleven years together, compatible in every category except one. My mom enjoys a healthy sense of adventure, time to go out exploring and being among people. Her husband is much more comfortable at home in his easy chair, Fox News or the History Channel blaring on the television.

I had him take a photograph of us with my cell phone before we left. “You know, before the invention of the cell phone, we didn’t realize what a world of narcissists we were.” He fumbled with the small screen for a moment. “Now, wait, I can only see myself in this image.” I laughed and helped him turn the screen around. “Now that is a much better view,” he said, as he snapped a photo that cut half my head off in the image.

Out in the car, mom and I began gabbing right away. We talk every other day or so, sharing in world events and community happenings, discussing what I’m reading or researching or writing about, and who she is doing nice things for.

Mom had a birthday a few weeks ago and I had promised her a night out on the town when I came to visit. Now, with my sons hanging out with my sister (their favorite aunt), it was finally date night.
“Well, where are we headed?”

I winked. “I suppose that is none of your business until we arrive. But on the way, I have a series of questions for you.”

And so we began to talk about her life. I asked her about her best day ever, and she told me about her wedding day to my dad when she was 22. She told me about her family gathered outside the Mormon temple and walking out in her wedding dress, being surrounded by family, her dreams coming true. My dad left her that afternoon to work on his family’s farm, where they had sheep and potatoes, and rejoined her in the evening for the wedding dinner and reception. They moved into a trailer on a high hill above the Snake River, a little extended space with two bedrooms. She was pregnant right away, and within a few years had three young children, then four, then five, and they soon moved into a beautiful home where she had been so happy.

“Everything fit,” she said. “We loved each other. It wasn’t perfect, but I loved his family, and he loved my family, and our children were beautiful, and we had the church and each other.”

I asked her about her pregnancies, and the names she chose for her children. While she never went on birth control, she did take some preventative measures to stop herself from having kids, and she chose each time she wanted to get pregnant, even when it began to have wear and tear on her body. She said she had wanted 8 children, or perhaps 10, and she had ended up with 7. 63 months pregnant, with terrible nausea and vomiting each time, and a few very rough deliveries. My oldest sister was nearly lost during delivery, she had a terrible shoulder injury with another, and my delivery itself was a particularly rough one.

We went back in time a bit more as we drove. I asked her about her choice of college major, about the men she dated in high school and college, and how she was proposed to several times but each time hadn’t been quite right. As a young student who first considered nursing and ended up teaching, she had devoted herself to one young man for months before learning he was being unfaithful. She was stunning, and in time she met my father, a handsome returned missionary fresh out of the army, the youngest son of a sheep farmer up the road.

By now, we were out of the car and sitting next to the river, watching man-made waterfalls and currents, the Mormon temple where she had been married across the river for a perfect view. Mom talked about how Dad had been devastated by a crop failure that cost them thousands. They had moved across the country for a fresh start, had two more children, built another home, and a decade later things had finally fallen apart. I had my arm around her shoulder, it was getting chilly outside.

“Mom, I want you to know how courageous I think you are. Growing up in this little corner of the world full of Mormons and potato fields, you built a life on the terms you were taught. You did everything right. You chose motherhood, and to be a wife, yet you worked as a teacher all the way through. You brought seven kids into the world, and we all turned out pretty all right. I know it took a lot of twists and turns along the way, and definitely threw you some curve balls and painful pitches, but you did it on your terms and you came out strong. You are an incredible mother and I love you.”

And minutes later, we walked into a local actor’s studio, set up in an old storefront, and saw a presentation of the Odd Couple while eating hamburgers and hot dogs off a dinner buffet. We laughed and had a wonderful evening.

Back at her home, I walked her in and saw my stepfather sitting in the same spot. “Well, I had her home by midnight as promised.”

“Oh, honey, we had a wonderful time.” She said and I left as she told him about our evening, feeling grateful for this amazing woman, this force of nature,+++++++++++++++ who brought me into the world.

 

Ensign Peak

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One Saturday several months ago, it rained endlessly, great buckets over the valley, grey skies draining out their excess on the dry land beneath. On Sunday, the skies cleared and the sun washed warmly over the wet expanses. I made my way to the hills and parked my car at Ensign Peak Nature Park, not far from my home in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ve lived here four years now, give or take a few months, but I’ve never been to this particular park.

Flags fly at the bottom, which is fitting as the word ensign means a flag or standard. Apparently back in 1847, when the Mormons first settled in the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young marched a group of men up to the top of this hill overlooking the city. He concocted a story about being shown this valley by the ghost of Joseph Smith in a holy vision and declared this is where the Saints would settle and build their new land. They named the hilltop Ensign Peak, referencing an old scripture from Isaiah in the Old Testament.

As I hike the relatively easy half mile incline to the top of the hill, my heart rate increased with minor exertion and my thoughts strayed to the thousands of people who had hiked this trail before me, going back generations. I get like this sometimes, existential, somehow connected to humanity going back to the beginning and pushing forward into the generations to come, my spirit extending outward beyond myself, soul open, eyes wide.

Life stirs in the bushes and trees around me. This Earth that supports life in all its forms, from the smallest of aphids to the largest of whales, from a single blade of grass to a sycamore tree, from one quiet infant to an entire race of humans each warring for their own interests and screaming for validation. A squirrel scrambles to the side, a bird flits up to a tree top, a cricket jumps across the path.

It only takes me 20 minutes to reach the top, and I find a rock to sit against, rolling my jacket up behind the small of my back. There is a little tower of rocks, man-made, up at the Peak, commemorating the space. I don’t let myself look at the horizon, not yet. I just want to experience life here for a moment. It’s warm, there’s a breeze, the ground is hard.

Over the next 20 minutes, I shut my eyes and just listen to the errant conversations around me, snippets of dialogue, voices among loved ones, words that only exist for the amount of time it takes for them to be spoken.

“How long are you in town before you head back to Berlin? We have to take you to a Bees game while you are here!”

“Mom! I already have four likes and two friend requests, look!”

“Sorry about my dog, she just makes that noise when she’s excited, but she would never hurt anyone.”

“Honey, did you forget the snack packs? He’s gonna want his snack pack.”

“I love you, too.”

I notice the quiet within myself, my own internal voices are silent. Those persistent drives and discomforts about the empty bank account, the need for better nutrition, the lack of abs, the lack of a boyfriend… they are silent for now, and it feels amazing. My face, my hands, my neck, all exposed skin soaks up the sunlight and the breeze.

After a time I stand and I take in a slow view of the horizon. The sun hangs low over the Great Salt Lake in the west with the Oquirrh Mountains on the horizon, the city stretches on endlessly to the South with buildings and roads as far as I can see, the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains give color and life to the east. The beautiful State Capitol building lies just below the peak, the smaller Salt Lake City Temple (the Mormon holy building) just beyond that, the University of Utah to the west, enormous apartment buildings jutting all over the valley.

I think back to the how the horizon has changed over the years. Back in 1847, this was a wide open expanse, all brown rock and blue skies. By 1900, the Mormon temple must have been the biggest building, with only small roads and homes around it, now it is dwarfed by concrete and metal businesses and dwellings, beautiful but barely noticeable unless you are right next to it. Before that, this peak must have been used by the fur traders and trappers who moved into the region, seeking to pillage its resources for wealth. Still before that, Native Americans likely used the same view to scout out resources, water sources or animals for hunting, or perhaps as a vantage point to watch for enemies. And it will keep changing as humans die and new humans take their places, as buildings and roads crumble and new structures are built over the old. What will be the view from this peak in ten years, fifty, one hundred?

I keep my back to the others who come and go behind me, still catching bits of their conversations.

“Dude, if you can’t run up this hill, you definitely aren’t ready for a marathon.”

“Should I text her again? No, you’re right, I just gotta wait for a response.”

“This is my first climb since my knee surgery. I can’t wait for a real challenge.”

“Humans,” I think, and I realize I’m smiling. Humans indeed.

I’m there for another ninety minutes, thinking, peaceful, centered, not worried about yesterday or tomorrow. These are the moments to live for, these spiritual moments in nature. I find them in nature, in the human story, in myself.

As the sun sets, I descend. There is a poetry to this place. An ensign raised for a new land, a peak from which you can see with clarity all around you, every potential, every pitfall. An ensign for myself, and one I plan to return to often.