a review of Carol Lynn Pearson’s The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men
I don’t think about polygamy much. I have no interest in participating in it (in this life or another). It doesn’t come up much in my conversations, except as I discuss my polygamous ancestors from the early Church or the lives of Brother Joseph or Brother Brigham and their contemporaries. I am one of those for whom, as Carol Lynn Pearson writes, “it is not to be taken very seriously.” But Pearson argues that there are others, “a great many, I think,” for whom “it is a blight, rather like the crickets that destroy a crop.”
To that I say, but wait, didn’t we — and by we I mean the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — give up polygamy more than a century ago? Well, yes and no. Members of the Church who enter into polygamous relationships today are excommunicated. But the promise of polygamy in the next life lingers, as evidenced by these practices:
- A widowed Mormon man can be sealed to another wife, and another after that, “secure in the promise that they will be his in eternity.”
- A widowed Mormon woman cannot be sealed to another man.
Wow, that does sound a lot like polygamy, waiting to be lived once we cross to the other side of the veil. And while I hadn’t known it, this causes a great deal of pain to a great many women and men. Pearson conducted an on-line survey, inviting participants to share their stories and their feelings. Eight thousand people participated, and while I wouldn’t trust such a survey to be representative (simply because the kinds of Church members who fill out an on-line survey about polygamy may be different from the kinds of Church members who don’t), the stories add up.
In this powerful book, Carol Lynn Pearson gives space to more than 100 women and men to recount their experiences with the specter of polygamy in the eternities. Young widows recount an inability to date and re-marry because men are seeking an eternal companion to whom they can be sealed. (Those who do re-marry and have children with good men have to decide whether to disrespect the memory of their lost, first love, by canceling the sealing in order to be sealed to their current husband, or to leave the original sealing intact, which means the children from the new union remain sealed to the first husband. Dizzying, I know.) Women recount holding back their hearts for fear that they will have to share their husbands with others in the life to come. Widows wonder and worry if their husbands have already taken other wives on the other side. Men on occasion use the promise of eternal polygamy as license for licentiousness, whether in act, in look, or in thought, in this life. Pearson recounts the painful experiences of women in the early church, first exposed to the practice of polygamy.
I don’t know exactly how many people struggle with this. But as Pearson writes, “My business is to tell the stories.” And our privilege, she writes, “is to listen.” Listening opened the window — for me — to voices I had not heard, pain I was not aware of.
You might react, “But wait, the men and women I know aren’t bothered by this.” To which I would say, “Listen to the stories. The fact that some do not feel pain does not diminish the pain of those who do. The fact that people you know aren’t talking about it doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling it.” You might say, “But wasn’t polygamy for good reasons? Wasn’t it necessary to care for the widows, or as part of the ‘restoration of all things,’ or to match the many celestial women with the relatively few celestial men, or some other reason?” To which I would say, “Listen to Sister Pearson lay out her reasoning for why these reasons do not hold up. And then listen to the stories. Understand the pain.”
Carol Lynn Pearson is a poet with a long history in the Church. This book is intensely personal: Pearson regularly quotes from her journal, from the journal of Church historian Leonard Arrington, from the journal of Phebe Woodruff (first wife among seven wives of Wilford Woodruff), all in addition to the personal stories from those who responded to her survey. She takes great pains to lay out her love and admiration for Joseph Smith. But she believes that he made mistakes, and that polygamy was one them. She calls for the Church to disavow polygamy. Whether or not you agree with her conclusion, I highly recommend this book. I didn’t agree with every argument that she put forward. But I can’t disagree with the pain and sadness felt by many women over generations.
What do other people think of the book?
- Laura Compton, Association for Mormon Letters: “‘The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy’ reflects many of the themes of previous work: love, feminism, equality, justice, healing, and the style, theme and subjects will be familiar to her readers. It is a work whose time has come, one which is very much and very clearly Carol Lynn, ‘wise-woman elder’ who notices pain, examines it, addresses it, and seeks to relieve it by urging the community on to better places.”
- Stephen Carter, Sunstone: “All of it is rendered in the poetic, compassionate—yet passionate—voice she has used to address so many of Mormonism’s difficult issues. If you have ever struggled with polygamy’s persistence in Mormonism, you will find a wise friend here. If you have always accepted polygamy, you will find much to challenge your thinking, all of it rooted in a deep love of Mormonism.”
- kait2lyn, Young Mormon Feminists: “Carol Lynn Pearson’s new book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy may be a literal Godsend. Pearson approaches the topic with intelligence, respect, and most of all—deep, deep empathy. Interspersed between the chapters of this cathartic book are stories collected, experiences from men and women in the Church and formerly of the Church who share the very real pain that is still being caused by the doctrine of polygamy. It makes this book unique in the sense that although Carol Lynn Pearson is the author, she’s also, more than anything, a listener.”
- Meg Stout, Millenial Star: “I am simultaneously irritated with Pearson while applauding her clarity in pointing out the damage stupid beliefs about eternal polygamy can cause.”
- Valerie Steimle, LDS Blogs: “There is so much false doctrine in this book I don’t even know where to begin.”
- Brian C. Hales, The Interpreter: “An unfortunate publication because of its many weaknesses…If there is anything spiritually useful here, it might be that GEP could help to open the door to a discussion about things that have likely haunted some LDS women since the 1840s, when plural marriage was first introduced.”
This post was updated on December 16, 2016, adding an additional review to the list of other reviews above.