[Disclaimer: This post is in tribute to BYUâ€™s excellent but short-lived page on the history of Mormon polygamy. Because some people wilfully misread the intentions of writers on controversial topics, I state unequivocally that I do not support modern polygamy or polygamists. This article is offered only as an illustration of the complexity of the historical Mormon experience with plural marriage, and a recognition of the difficulties of dissolving polygamous families in any era.]
â€œI was born in Nauvoo … [of] Mormon parentage … [A]ll my life has been spent within the church, and I would to heaven … I could be permitted to remain until the final shadows shall have enveloped me.â€
Shortly after penning those words in 1908, Josiah F. Gibbs was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His disfellowshipment came after more than 60 years of a busy frontier life which was in many ways typical of those who had settled and developed their western kingdom.
At his birth in 1845, Josiah was already a third-generation member of a church that was then barely 15 years old. His family wandered for ten years in Iowa and Illinois following their expulsion from Nauvoo, the father enduring imprisonment and the children enduring taunting for their religious beliefs. They crossed the great plains by oxcart in 1857, arriving in Salt Lake City just in time to join the temporary evacuation before the army that had been sent to bring the Mormons under American control. Josiah worked on community projects, including the great Tabernacle on Temple Square, being instructed in carpentry techniques by Brigham Young himself. With his father, he stood weekly guard to protect Brigham Young, and was welcomed into the family circle to such an extent that he considered himself something of a foster Young.
Josiah pioneered several central Utah towns. He interacted closely with the local Indians, first serving as a cavalryman in the Blackhawk war against them and later making close friendships among the native Pahvants, learning their language and extracting valuable accounts of historical events from an Indian perspective. He served a three yearsâ€™ proselyting mission to England, and upon his return engaged wholeheartedly in local religious activities including leadership in educational endeavors, service as a ward teacher, and enthusiastic promotion of Sunday schools. He became deeply interested in politics, favoring the Democratic party and promoting statehood. While in his role as a newspaper editor he forcefully opposed ecclesiastical influence in the political process, he staunchly maintained the right of the Mormon people to govern themselves as American citizens, and fiercely defended his place in the Mormon community:
“[W]e ask our readers to remember that the writer was born among this people, that his hopes for the present and future are identical with theirs …
“The above declaration [of opposition to ecclesiastical involvement] is made without the slightest bitterness of feeling toward any member, or leader, of the church in which I was born and in which I expect to die.”
And yet Josiah did not die in the church. In 1906 his position shifted from that of reformer from within to attacker from without.
“I will … do all in my power to break down the insidious religio-political monstrosity called Mormonism.”
“Joseph F. Smith [is] the most contemptibly pious fraud of all the centuries.”
“[T]he Mormon â€˜kingdom of Godâ€™ is fully as harmless as a coiled rattlesnake waiting to strike its fangs into this Nation, and to substitute the rule of the Mormon priesthood for the rule of the people.”
So what was responsible for this unanticipated and bitter break with his people? It arose from Josiahâ€™s participation in the most distinctive feature of 19th-century Mormonism, participation which he never publicly acknowledged in thousands of pages of intensely personal writing. Josiah Gibbs simply refused to discuss his status as a polygamist, the simultaneous husband of two wives and father of two families.
Josiah married Maria in 1870, shortly after returning from his English mission. At virtually the same time Josiahâ€™s father married polygamously to a widow with two children. Two of Josiahâ€™s sisters married as first wives to their respective husbands, and sometime later their youngest sister became the plural wife of her own sisterâ€™s husband. Josiah himself took a second wife, Monetta, in 1880. This complex extended family settled together first in Fillmore and later in Deseret where for the most part each wife had her own home.
And what was life like for these polygamous families?
Josiahâ€™s mother embraced the principle fiercely, determined to endure the trials of polygamous mortality which were certain to earn her a place in the Celestial Kingdom of heaven. She testified in one womenâ€™s meeting that she â€œ[k]nows this is the work of God [and w]ould rather see her children in prison than apostatize.â€ At another meeting she taught that it â€œis through our trials that we are to be provenâ€ and she felt â€œto rejoice that she is in the kingdom of God.â€ When her husbandâ€™s plural wife died, however, her willingness to embrace the trials of polygamy did not extend to making a home for her husbandâ€™s son, who went to live with Josiah and his first wife, Maria.
Josiahâ€™s sister Mary fled to Mexico for a time with her own polygamous husband. Before leaving Deseret, she told her sister-sufferers that â€œshe looked forward for something better in the future than this life[;] if she did not [she] would not care for living.â€
Without dwelling on the difficulties, Josiahâ€™s sister Imogene suggested that polygamous life was not easy, especially when she shared her husband with her own sister:
“Dora and I never quarreled. I think I would have felt better if I had some one other than a sister in polygamy because I could have brushed over and relieved myself some. Not many men know how to handle polygamy after they get into it. They are pulled one side then the other.”
Josiahâ€™s favorite sister Medora paid the highest price for polygamy because she was forced to live â€œon the underground,â€ or in hiding, when her baby was due, in order to protect her husband from obvious evidence of polygamy. After his estrangement from the church, Josiah wrote this account of Medoraâ€™s death which, although in a fictional setting, he swore was accurate in its details:
“Hers was a face to be remembered. She was not handsome, but she was good and loveable. I will never forget her modest, gentle deportment. …
“Dora was to become a mother. It was a difficult case … The elders were called in, and they anointed her with â€˜consecrated oilâ€™ and laid their hands upon her head. …
“The girl had implicit faith in the power of the priesthood … [but t]he services of a skilled physician, rather than [prayer] was needed in the supreme ordeal which was slowly crucifying the helpless girl. …
“After fifty hours of agony for the young wife, [they] were still on their knees praying … A stifled, agonized moan, and the spirit of the trusting girl entered the presence of the Good Father, who alone knows all that Mormon women have endured for their faith …
“The only brother of the girl was in Provo. A few hours after his sisterâ€™s death he received a message â€“ it read:
“â€˜Dora died at 3:30 this morning.â€™
“By steam and horses the brother with a skilled physician could have reached the bedside of his favorite sister within six hours. But [they] watched and prayed while the confiding, undelivered girl was slowly dying.
“The brother went home and learned the truth … he looked down into the drawn, pain-furrowed face of his sister and into the dark, strangled face of the babe, and realized the horror of the unnecessary tragedy …”
Josiah had his own difficulties with polygamy. From later developments, it seems clear that his first wife, Maria, was the love of his youth and that his affection for her lasted into their old age. Life with the younger second wife, Monetta, was more difficult. Josiah could temporarily escape his domestic situation, however, by making extended prospecting trips to further his mining interests. These absences from home protected him somewhat from the raids of the federal marshals.
“By frequent, and unexpected, invasions of the place, Marshal Mount had captured all but one of the polygamists. During two years Mount had carried a warrant for the special law-breaker, but all efforts to â€œserve the paperâ€had failed. In fact, he had never seen him to know him. The man [Gibbs] had received a commission from the Geological Survey to make a collection of fossils … One evening as the man was getting supper for his son, brother and himself, a traveler drove down to the spring and prepared to camp. The brother went down to the travelerâ€™s camp, returned, and in a scared voice said, ‘Mount is down there.’ ‘All right; if he asks any questions tell him my name is Brown, and that Iâ€™m in the employ of the Government.’ Mount and ‘Brown’ spent a very sociable evening.”
If Josiah was out of reach, his wives and children were not; in September of 1889, both Maria and Monetta, and Josiahâ€™s 15-year-old daughter Ruby, were subpoenaed to testify against him. It was probably to spare his wives and daughter this pain and embarrassment that Josiah turned himself in that fall, traveling from Deseret to Provo with his bishop, who was also under indictment for polygamy. He did not confide his plans to his bishop, however. The next day, after being convicted of unlawful cohabitation and receiving his prison sentence and fine, Bishop Black â€œwas then put in charge of a bailiff, who conducted me up to an upper room where a few of the brethren who had been sentenced had preceded me. The number continued to increase till there were 12 in the room. A man by the name of J.F. Gibbs had accompanied me from Deseret and was to have been sentenced the same afternoon. I kept watch to see him coming.â€ He neednâ€™t have waited â€“ unknown to him, Josiah had made other plans.
Maria, Josiahâ€™s first and legal wife, had filed for divorce from him so that he could legally marry Monetta, whose children were still quite small. Josiah pleaded guilty to unlawful cohabitation, and because the judge was aware of the pending divorce no sentence nor fine was imposed. The divorce was completed, the parties returned to Deseret, and Josiah and Monetta were legally married a few days later, about a year before the Manifesto ended plural marriage for most other Mormons.
Although never mentioning Mariaâ€™s name in print, Josiah expressed his grief and admiration for her and others who, like Abrahamâ€™s despised wife Hagar, had been driven out to make their way as best they could:
“[T]housands of Mormon Hagars [were] driven into the wilderness [and] in loneliness and sorrow, are serving out the hard sentence of separation … [T]he tenderest emotions of the human heart were rent asunder, that Mormon practices might be in harmony with the demands of the majority. The details of that struggle will never be written on the pages of mortal history. Only the recording angel has noted the events of those days.
“From girlhood they had been taught the â€œrighteousnessâ€ of the doctrine, and their minds educated for its practice. The monogamous world may sneer at Mormon women. But since Eve, in her primeval innocence, with bowed head stood before her Maker, no purer, truer women have graced the Creatorâ€™s footstool than the great majority of Mormon plural wives. …
“Those plural wives were as devoted to their home surroundings as the monogamous wives. The plural wife looked for the periodical home-coming of the husband and father with all the eagerness of the monogamous wife. And it was on those plural homes that the shadow of the Manifesto fell with crushing force. Those women had laid the best of their lives and all they possessed on the altar of polygamy. By the edict of the Manifesto, hundreds of modern Hagars were driven forth into the wilderness of a new and strange existence. In some cases the first wife voluntarily secured a divorce from her husband, so that the plural wife might become the legal wife, and that, too, from the loftiest motives.”
Although now legally married, Josiah and Monetta spent little time together. Monetta divorced Josiah in 1902 in an action he described as â€œbut one of the echoes … of lives that had been wrecked on the rocks of latter-day polygamyâ€. Monetta moved to California, and her grown children lived alternately in California and with their father in his now permanent home in Marysvale, Utah. Maria, in a puzzle I have yet to solve, married again seven months before giving birth to a daughter. She lived with her second husband for more than 20 years, but after his death she too moved to Marysvale, where Josiah provided a house for her in the family compound. She is buried by his side in the cemetery overlooking Marysvale.
Josiah believed that the sacrifice of and by his wives was shared universally by his church, its members, and their leaders. He considered the Manifesto a pledge of faith with the American people. He recognized that statehood, with its provision of full political stature to all Mormons, would never have been granted without the full and complete abandonment of polygamy. However, his interpretation of the Manifesto seems to have been that all polygamous relations would be severed, not merely that no new marriages would be contracted. Such an absolutist interpretation is not supported by the language of the Manifesto, nor by the teachings of church leaders, nor by the behavior of church membership generally.
In 1904, church president Joseph F. Smith was called to Washington to be questioned in the matter of the seating of apostle Reed Smoot as a senator from Utah. Week after week of testimony made it obvious that Gibbsâ€™s sacrifice had not been shared universally by his fellow churchmen. New plural marriages continued to be contracted in secret. Josiahâ€™s wife Maria had borne the fate of Hagar in the wilderness, but the wives of Joseph F. Smith had been sheltered and had even continued to bear him children â€“ at least 11 following the Manifesto. Somewhat disingenuously, Josiah felt he could no longer support Joseph F. Smith as a prophet and the leader of the Mormon people.
Following the Senate hearings, Josiah took time to put his thoughts in order and consider his options. It was not an easy problem to work through..
“[T]o the average Mormon … the most terrible punishment that can be meted out … is to be called an apostate. [I]t means that a man is a traitor to his God, to his people, and to himself. … [I]f a layman exert his right to disbelieve in President Smithâ€™s right to break the laws of God and man … that layman becomes an apostate, with all that the name implies. In so far as the term apostate applies to the charge that I have ‘departed from the religion of my parents,’ I most earnestly deny the charge.”
Nevertheless, Josiah issued his own manifesto in the pages of the Salt Lake Tribune: â€œFrom this date until the leaders of the … Mormon church keep the pledges … they made with the people of the United States … I am â€˜heart and soulâ€™ with the American partyâ€ [the local party whose sole platform was to oppose and discredit the Mormon church]. There followed in rapid succession a series of caustic articles denouncing Joseph F. Smith, the 1908 excommunication, speaking tours throughout Utah denouncing Mormonism, lectures to California audiences, and publications dramatizing the most controversial aspects of Mormon history and social policy. For a while, Josiah was the toast of anti-Mormon society, an insider who knew where the bodies were buried and a brilliant, if partisan, opponent with whom it was difficult to argue or discredit.
And then the attention of Utah and the nation turned to other spectacles, and Josiah dropped below the radar of popular notice. He carried on private correspondence with a few notable Utah authors and occasionally wrote letters to the editor of the Tribune, but he became largely forgotten. He outlived most of his friends, his wives, several of his children, and most of his siblings. When he died in 1932, his request to be given an old-fashioned pioneer funeral was honored, and he was buried next to Maria following prayers offered by the townâ€™s Mormon bishop. A few weeks later, his only surviving sister requested baptism by proxy to restore Josiah to membership in the Mormon church.
The issue of polygamy temporarily faded from public view at about the same time as Josiah vanished. It never went away entirely, of course, and flares up from time to time â€“ it is burning hotly now. Law enforcement is in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-donâ€™t position: when action is taken, sheriffs and prosecutors are branded as hypocrites because someone invariably uncovers an ancestral tie to a polygamous marriage. Yet when action is not taken, or is not vigorous enough, the same sheriffs and prosecutors are rumored as reluctant to enforce laws against a principle they secretly endorse.
Utah has not outlived its heritage of plural marriage. The cast of characters has changed but the human investment has not. Whether one endorses or opposes the practice, no one should approach the issue without considering the best interests of plural wives and children. Josiah Gibbs never forgot these families with whom he sympathized in florid but sincere terms:
“Under that domestic relation children were born and reared, and ties just as tender, and love just as pure and holy as any passion that ever had birth on this earth, had been formed. Upon thousands of homes … [the] manifesto fell with crashing force. Wives who loved their husband with all the tenderness … of which womanâ€™s nature is capable, women who would have died by the most exquisite torture rather than part with a domestic relation that had placed upon their brows the holy name of wife, and upon their heads the wreath of honorable maternity, bowed … in the presence of a sorrow infinitely worse than death. … Alone in their sorrow those women have pursued the pathway of life. … No one but He whose sympathetic being notes the falling of a single sparrow, understands the magnitude of the terrible sorrow that has come …; no one but the Father has read aright the motives that have prompted them to endure.”