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Mormon
Polygamy Not About Widows


By Randy Jordan

Dear Editor, Salt Lake Tribune:

I read, open-jawed, Hilary Groutage Smith's article in the Saturday, August 10th 2002, Tribune concerning a speech on 19th-century Mormon polygamy delivered at the recent FAIR convention by BYU assistant professor of history Kathryn Daynes.

The reasons Ms. Daynes offers for the origins and purposes of 19th-century Mormon polygamy (as reported by Ms. Smith) do not comport in the least with known and accepted historical facts. It would require many pages of documentation to attempt to correct the misinformation with which Ms. Daynes has filled her audiences' minds, but I'd like to note a few items in brief in rebuttal to her remarks, and hope that you will consider publishing my comments.

Ms. Daynes essentially asserts that the Mormons practiced polygamy in order to provide husbands and fathers for widows and children of Mormon men who had died because of "religious persecution" or on the trek westward, or because of an alleged "shortage of men" in those days. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin with, the first rumblings of polygamy in Mormonism came in 1831, when Joseph Smith counseled a group of already-married Mormon elders:

Joseph Smith Polygamy"For it is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles."
- Prophet Joseph Smith, The Joseph Smith Revelations Text and Commentary, p. 374-37.

Joseph Smith hoped that if Mormon elders "married" Native-American women, then the Mormons could legally settle on Native-American lands in Kansas, which was then off-limits to white settlers. Federal agents quickly told the Mormons to stay on the eastern side of the Missouri River, and to leave the Native-Americans alone.

As these events occurred long before there were any Mormon men killed by "persecution," and Smith's "revelation" dealt only with taking Native-American women to wife, Ms. Daynes' "Mormon widows needed husbands" angle is without merit.

Secondly, the first documented "plural wife" in Mormon history was no widow, but rather a 16-year-old single girl named Fannie Alger, who was Emma Smith's housemaid. Several of Joseph Smith's intimate followers asserted that Smith "married" Alger around 1833, in Kirtland, Ohio. That relationship caused quite a scandal in Kirtland, wherein Smith's subordinates Oliver Cowdery and Warren Parrish attempted to bring Smith to a church trial on charges of adultery. Smith had a loyalist, Levi Hancock, spirit Miss Alger out of town to prevent her from testifying to the relationship. Miss Alger later civilly married one Solomon Custer in Indiana, and apparently had nothing more to do with Mormonism.

In the 1890's, assistant LDS Church historian Andrew Jenson listed Miss Alger as Joseph Smith's first-ever "plural wife." As Miss Alger was an unmarried teenager at the time of her relationship with Smith, and in fact was very marriageable in the eyes of Solomon Custer, Smith had no need to "marry" her to provide for her.

Smith's second documented "plural marriage" (in 1838) was to Lucinda Morgan Harris, who was currently married to George Washington Harris, a high councilor in the Far West, Missouri, Mormon stake. As Mrs. Harris had a currently-living husband, Smith obviously didn't marry her because she was a widow or because of "persecution."

In fact, as LDS historian Todd Compton shows in his excellent book "In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith," of Smith's 33 well-documented "plural wives," at least eleven of them had legal husbands at the time of their "sealing" to Smith. And, contrary to popular myth, none of those women were estranged from their legal husbands, so Smith didn't take them into his household to provide for them.

Among the currently-married women Smith "plural married" were:

  • Nancy Marinda Hyde (the wife of Orson Hyde, whom Smith had sent on a mission to Palestine)
  • Zina Huntington Jacobs (future general Relief Society President and then-wife of Henry Jacobs)
  • Mary Rollins Lightner (wife of non-Mormon Adam Lightner---the same woman who, as a young girl, "saved" the manuscript pages of the 'Book of Commandments' from a Missouri mob in 1833.)

Among Joseph Smith's other "plural wives" were the two daughters of the late Edward Partridge and the two daughters of the deceased Edward Lawrence. As those girls were young, single, and marriageable, Smith certainly didn't need to marry them to provide them, or any other of his currently-married "plural wives," with an upkeep.

In fact, since there is much evidence that most of those womens' relationships with Joseph Smith were sexual---and little evidence that Smith provided for their maintenance---the "women needed husbands to take care of them" is again invalidated. The "women needed husbands" angle seems to be the exception in Mormon polygamy, rather than the rule.

After Joseph Smith's death, some of his successors maintained his polyandrous practice: Brigham Young took Zina Jacobs for himself, telling her husband Henry that he "would have to go and get another" wife. Zina bore a child by Young on April 3, 1850.

Brigham Young explained that such appropriations of already-married women were part of Joseph Smith's theology, which stated that a Mormon man who held a "higher power and authority than her husband" had the privilege of making "her his wife...he can do so without a bill of divorcement."

Young's counselor, Apostle Jedediah M. Grant, also referred to this practice in an 1854 sermon by stating:

"now suppose Joseph [Smith] should come and say he wanted your wife, what would you say to that?.....[I would say] here she is, and there are plenty more." (JD 2: 13-14)

As the polygamy practice increased in Utah from the 1850's-'80s, several instances occurred where "higher-ranking" Mormon men appropriated the wives of subordinates; and there were many more occasions where higher-ranking priesthood holders broke the hearts of young men by taking their intended brides as their own plural wives. At that time, Mormon theology held that the more "plural wives" a man had, the greater his "kingdom" would be in the afterlife. Therefore, it was appropriate that the highest-ranking leaders could attract the greatest number of "plural wives" who could "ride his coattails" into his "celestial kingdom." This practice was so prevalent that many Mormon women had themselves "sealed by proxy" to Smith, Young, or other high leaders, even though they had no earthly relationship with them.

Concerning Ms. Daynes' assertion about a shortage of Mormon men being a justification for polygamy, LDS Apostle John A. Widtsoe discredited that myth nearly a century ago, stating:

"Members of the Church unfamiliar with its history, and many non-members, have set up fallacious reasons for the origin of this system of marriage among the Latter-Day Saints. The most common of these conjectures is that the Church, through plural marriage, sought to provide husbands for its large surplus of female members. The implied assumption in this theory, that there have been more female than male members in the Church, is not supported by existing evidence. On the contrary, there seem always to have been more males than females in the Church....The United States Census records from 1850 to 1940, and all available Church records, uniformly show a preponderance of males in Utah, and in the Church." ("Evidences and Reconciliations," p. 391.)

Ms. Daynes' remark that the Martin/Willey handcart company tragedies "created more widows" is also specious, considering that those pioneers traveled as families, and wives died right along with their husbands. Many high-ranking Mormon leaders had numerous "plural wives." Brigham Young had more than 50, and Heber C. Kimball more than 40. Several of their favored subordinates also had many, as exemplified by Bishop John D. Lee's 18.

In light of that, contrary to Ms. Daynes' assertions about there being a "shortage of men," the polygamy practice actually created a shortage of marriageable women. In fact, the leaders' "hoarding" of wives contributed to the actual decline in new polygamous unions even before the 1890 Manifesto, because many young, marriageable Mormon men were finding that girls whom they might have courted were being snapped up by higher-ranking leaders. The church even counseled missionaries leaving for Europe not to marry all the women they converted, but to bring back some of the ladies for the leaders.

Heber C Kimball"Brethren, I want you to understand that it is not to be as it has been heretofore. The brother missionaries have been in the habit of picking out the prettiest women for themselves before they get here, and bringing on the ugly ones for us; hereafter you have to bring them all here before taking any of them, and let us all have a fair shake."
- Apostle Heber C. Kimball, The Lion of the Lord, New York, 1969, pp.129-30.

and again...

"I say to those who are elected to go on missions, remember they are not your sheep: they belong to Him that sends you. Then do not make a choice of any of those sheep; do not make selections before they are brought home and put into the fold. You under stand that. Amen"
- Apostle Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, p.256.

That further demonstrates that the "shortage of men" justification is fallacious.

One further note - Joseph Smith's 1843 "revelation on celestial marriage" which is still canonized Mormon scripture as Doctrine and Covenants Section 132, states that the purposes of "plural marriage" was to "multiply and replenish the earth" (D&C 132:63). Nowhere in the revelation does it mention taking care of widows.

Seeing as how a woman can only become pregnant by one fertile man at a time, that means that the "multiply and replenish" aspect of "plural marriage" fails for lack of logic. To increase population, a Mormon man wouldn't need numerous "plural wives" with which to reproduce - one fertile man being mated with one fertile woman would produce as many, if not more children over time than would one polygamous man with numerous wives.

Ms. Daynes cited her research of 269 Mormon pioneer women, one-third of whose fathers were "dead or not in Utah," as being another justification for polygamy. I fail to grasp Ms. Daynes' logic here, as women who have no fathers don't need fathers; they need husbands. And seeing as how most Mormon men had sex with, and bore children by, their "plural wives," including teenage ones, it's rather obvious that those marriages were not intended to replace a lost father.

Someone once said that "Mormons' knowledge of their own history is a mile wide and an inch deep." It's disappointing to see that that quip extends to someone who is supposed to be a professor of history. If Ms. Daynes' remarks are an example of the "Mormon history" that the LDS Church wishes to be dispensed, then I'll opine that as time passes, future Mormons will be completely ignorant of the true facts of their own history.

Randy Jordan

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