In my prior post, I looked briefly at the origins of polygamy. Again using documents from B. Carmon Hardy’s Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (Arthur H. Clark, 2007), I will now look at the public practice of polygamy in early Utah. How did the Saints in Utah explain it to the world and what did visitors to Salt Lake City say about what they observed?
The 1852 Announcement
On August 29, 1852, Orson Pratt delivered an address titled “Celestial Marriage” at a Church conference, the first time the ongoing Mormon practice of polygamy was publicly proclaimed. In the commentary introducing the selection included in the book, Hardy notes that “most who were church members in the Rocky Mountain West, and many who resided elsewhere, had been aware of plural marriage for years.” Nevertheless, the announcement was a turning point for the LDS Church, immediately complicating its relationship with the federal government. Predictably, Elder Pratt invoked freedom of religion:
I think, if I am not mistaken, that the constitution gives the privilege to all the inhabitants of this country, of the free exercise of their religious notions, and the freedom of their faith, and the practice of it. … And should there ever be laws enacted by this government to restrict them from the free exercise of this part of their religion, such laws must be unconstitutional.
Pratt praised the first marriage between Adam and Eve, stating that it was an eternal marriage (it was “celebrated between two immortal beings” and “was eternal in its nature”) and that the object of marriage was to multiply and replenish the earth “and multiply to all ages of eternity.” He noted the promise given to Abraham of a numerous posterity, then asked, “Was he to accomplish it all through one wife? No. Sarah gave a certain woman to him whose name was Hagar ….” And he invoked what we would now call anthropology: “I think there is only about one-fifth of the population of the globe, that believes in the one-wife system, the other four-fifths believe in the doctrine of a plurality of wives. They have had it laid down from time immemorial ….” Pratt then referenced what we now call D&C 132 as “new revelation” that was “given to the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, Joseph Smith, on the 12th day of July, 1843” and gives this familiar explanation for why plural marriage was put into practice:
[W]hat will become of those individuals who have this law taught unto them in plainness, if they reject it? … I will tell you, they will be damned, saith the Lord God Almighty, in the revelation He has given. Why? Because where much is given, much is required. … This was the word of the Lord to his servant Joseph the prophet himself. With all the knowledge and light he had, he must comply with it, or, says the Lord unto him, you shall be damned; and the same is true in regard to all those who reject these things.
A quick look at the Gospel Topics essay “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah” is in order at this point. The main text of the essay entirely omits reference to Elder Pratt’s 1852 address publicly announcing the LDS practice of polygamy. It gives this carefully worded description of events: “In accordance with a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage — the marriage of one man to two or more women — was instituted among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s. Thereafter, for more than half a century, plural marriage was practiced by some Latter-day Saints.” Later in the essay, this sentence appears: “During the years that plural marriage was publicly taught, all Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle as a revelation from God.” A footnote to this later sentence provides the following short explanation: “Plural marriage was first introduced privately to a small group of Church members, which expanded over time. Church leaders publicly announced the practice in 1852.” So if you know the actual sequence of events and look hard enough, you can find it in the essay, but on this significant point the essay seems calculated to bury rather than present a key part of the polygamy narrative.
What Visitors to Salt Lake City Wrote
The following quotations are all taken from Chapter 5 of the book, “Non-Mormons Look at Polygamy.” In 1852, John Williams Gunnison (aka “Captain Gunnison,” a West Point graduate, who perished in an Indian attack near Lake Sevier in 1853) published The Mormons, or, Latter-Day Saints, including this passage about what was known or suspected about the practice of polygamy prior to the 1852 announcement:
The revelation of Joseph on the subject of polygamy has probably never been printed, or publicly circulated. When he declared to the council the revelation, it was made known that he, like the saints of old, David, Solomon, and Jacob, and those He thought faithful, should be privileged to have as many wives as they could manage to take care of …. Immediately rumors were spread that the wives of many of the people were “re-married” to the leaders and high-priests, and subject to them, which they declared to be a slander; and maintain that the relation existing among them is a pure and holy one, and that their doctrine is, that every man shall have one wife, and every woman only one husband, as is laid down in the Book of Covenants by revelation.
Yet they affirm that this allows to the man a plurality, as the phrase is peculiarly worded; — the “only” applying to the female alone. [Emphasis with italics instead provided by quotation marks.]
William Chandless was a teamster who came to Utah with a company of Mormons in 1855. Here is a quotation from his later book about the details of early public practice:
The institutions relating to marriage (regarded from their point of view) are judiciously planned, and tend to mitigate, in some degree, the external evils of the system; but the inequality of the sexes is a doctrine of their religious belief, as well as a rule of life. The husband is regarded as a patriarch, and his family is subject to him as its head: wives are bound to obey their husbands in all things, wrong or right. The husband’s command is accounted their justification, both in this world and the next; he is said to be their “priest and king,” they should not look beyond him …. Every-day life, however, modifies such extreme theories very much in practice. Solomon’s heart, we know, was turned by his wives, and so are those of many less wise than he.
Newspaper editor Horace Greely passed through Salt Lake City in 1859. While there, he interviewed Brigham Young:
Greely: “[I]s the system of your church acceptable to the majority of its women?”
Young: “They could not be more averse to it than I was when it was first revealed to us as the Divine will. I think they generally accept it, as I do, as the will of God.”
Greely: “How general is polygamy among you?”
Young: “I could not say. Some of those present [heads of the Church] have each but one wife; others have more; each determines what is his individual duty.” [bracketed insertion in original]
Jules Remy, a French botanist, visited Salt Lake City in 1855 and authored a two-volume report, noting:
It is an article of faith with them that in the world to which they will go on leaving this one, each man will reign over his children, who will constitute his kingdom; that the more children, the more the glory; and that if they have neither wives nor children upon earth, they will enjoy no glory whatever. … Another necessary consequence is, that the faithful are unduly occupied with the task of getting as many wives as they can.
Finally, the English explorer and adventurer Richard Burton spent three weeks among the Mormons in 1860, then wrote City of the Saints, a memoir of his visit. (See here for a brief and entertaining summary of his visit.) Here is an excerpt on the details of public polygamy:
The first wife, as among polygamists generally, is “the” wife, and assumes the husband’s name and title. Her “plurality” — partners are called sisters — such as sister Anne or sister Blanche — and are the aunts of her children. The first wife is married for time, the others are sealed for eternity. Hence, according to the Mormons, arose the Gentile calumny concerning spiritual wifedom, which they distinctly deny. Girls rarely remain single past sixteen — in England the average marrying age is thirty — and they would be the pity of the community, if they were doomed to a waste of youth so unnatural.
Divorce is rarely obtained by the man who is ashamed to own that he cannot keep his house in order; some, such as the President, would grant it only in case of adultery; wives, however, are allowed to claim it for cruelty, desertion, or neglect. [First use of scare quotes to indicate emphasis by italics in original.]
Rereading the previously linked essay, one notes how much of the text is justification and conclusory statements, and how few descriptions and examples are given. The above quotes provide some of that missing description and detail. For more, you can always read the book.