Two Quotations

Two quotations on divorce, from church leaders of different eras:

Dallin H. Oaks, 2007:

Modern prophets have warned that looking upon marriage “as a mere contract that may be entered into at pleasure . . . and severed at the first difficulty . . . is an evil meriting severe condemnation,” especially where children are made to suffer. In ancient times and even under tribal laws in some countries where we now have members, men have power to divorce their wives for any trivial thing. Such unrighteous oppression of women was rejected by the Savior. . . .

The kind of marriage required for exaltation—eternal in duration and godlike in quality—does not contemplate divorce. In the temples of the Lord, couples are married for all eternity. But some marriages do not progress toward that ideal. Because “of the hardness of [our] hearts,” the Lord does not currently enforce the consequences of the celestial standard. He permits divorced persons to marry again without the stain of immorality specified in the higher law.

Brigham Young, 1856 (JoD 4:55, in a portion titled “A Privilege Given to All the Married Sisters in Utah”)

I want those who are here to tell their sisters, yes, all the women of this community, and then write it back to the states, and and do as you please with it. I am going to give you from this time to the 6th day of October next, for reflection, that you may determine whether you wish to stay with your husbands or not, and then I am going to set every woman at liberty and say to them, Now go your way, my women with the rest, go your way. And my wives have got to do one of two things: either round up their shoulders to endure the afflictions of this world, and live their religion, or they may leave, for I will not have them about me. I will go into heaven alone, rather than have scratching and fighting around me. I will set all at liberty. “What, the first wife too?” Yes, I will liberate you all. . . .

I wish my women, and brother Kimball’s, and brother Grant’s to leave, and every woman in this territory, or else say in their hearts that they will embrace the Gospel — the whole of it. Tell the Gentiles that I will free every woman in this Territory at our next Conference.

23 comments for “Two Quotations

  1. April 17, 2007 at 9:14 am

    Wow, Kaimi, is that the only thing BY ever said about marriage? Any chance you might be taking these comments slightly out of context?

  2. Ugly Mahana
    April 17, 2007 at 9:46 am

    Now, where exactly did BY claim that this followed the celestial standard referenced by Elder Oaks? If you are implying that these two quotes disagree with each other, then I think I’ll have to disagree with you. Hopefully we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable.

  3. Matt W.
    April 17, 2007 at 10:51 am

    This post reminds me of another talk by Elder Oaks on timing.

  4. bbell
    April 17, 2007 at 11:25 am


    BY made his comments in the context of polygamy. BY was divorced several times as were many of the other polygamous men who married many times.

    You are really comparing apples to oranges and I suspect that you know that already.

  5. Eugene V. Debs
    April 17, 2007 at 11:32 am

    These two quotes show both Oaks and Young engaging in broader American discourse about threats to traditional marriage, Oaks as a member of the establishment and Young as an outlaw. Oaks is raising the right-wing shibboleth about contemporary society being hostile to marriage and arguing that the LDS, at least in terms of ideals, are on the right side of history. Young is responding to charges that Mormon men impress gangs of wives into lifelong servitude by saying that the wives are free to go at any time and therefore voluntarily participating in polygamy. In other words, these quotes aren’t really about divorce as much as they are about the relationship between the Church and American society. They would naturally appear to be at odds with each other because, as the commenters above suggest, they are lacking in context.

  6. Adam Greenwood
    April 17, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Shibboleth? If you want to convince us that there really isn’t too much divorce, you better start hoeing. The row is long.

  7. Meg
    April 17, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    While this may be an “apples and oranges” comparison, it may still be interesting in that right. The LDS perspective on marriage, family, and divorce that currently exists is radically different that the LDS perspective of the same issues during the 19th century, and if these two quotations are meant to highlight that, then they succeed.

    Even with the respective contexts in mind, the juxtaposition of the two quotes highlights the extreme difference in what was said about the family, which we regard as the fundamental building block of our religion. The change that occurred in the last 150 years should call into question the way we view the family as part of church history when the practice and its consequences of polygamy resulted in so much of what today the church purports to stand against today. Since we consider our families to be eternal in nature, then I think, to some extent, examining the different rhetoric that has come from our prophets with regards to family in the course of time is relevant.

    Not a new conversation, just a new spark.

  8. Ugly Mahana
    April 17, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    I don’t think the quotes are in disagreement as to substance. Elder Oaks says that divorce is not part of the celestial law. BY states that any who do not want to embrace the gospel are free to leave- in other words, they do not have to live the law. He does not state that divorce is compatible with the celestial law. He does not state that the women who leave are free to divorce and still remain in compliance with the celestial law. He simply says that they are free to make the choice. While the permissiveness of BY’s statement is more plain than what Elder Oaks expressed, I do not believe that the two statements express anything that is fundamentally different.

    I humbly await my rebuke.

  9. April 17, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Just a thought…

    What exact options did a woman in Utah have if she were to divorce her husband?

    Exactly how was she to live and be supported? What would be her position?

    Did women at that time actually have a realistic option of leaving the marriage? Is Brigham Young simply posturing here when he knows full well that most of the women aren’t going to take him up on his offer?

  10. Dan in CVille
    April 17, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Geoff B (1),

    With BY, context often makes the quotes even more jarring – be careful what you wish for. Fact is, he had some really nutty ideas about various things, even really important things. I’ve read enough of his quotes to where I’m kind of hard to shock at this point, and I accept his prophetic calling while taking a lot of his statements with grains buckets of salt. I’m glad Kaimi posted these quotes, if only to illustrate how far we’ve come in producing well thought-out, thoroughly-reasoned positions on Gospel issues.

  11. Adam Greenwood
    April 17, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    Remarriage to someone else was the usual option, Seth R.

  12. John Taber
    April 17, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    And usually it was a matter of “trading up” to someone in a higher Church position.

  13. bbell
    April 17, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    Usually what happened is the Polygamous wife found polygamy not to her liking and either found a new man to marry or went back to her parents home. BY was divorced numerous times as were others including Joseph F. Smith who was divorced from his first wife.

    I have an ancestor that left a polygamous marriage when her father and brother showed up with loaded firearms and went back home and married by gggg grandfather.

    I have also found that opponents of the Pro Hetero marriage, pro-nuclear family doctrine both inside and outside the church like to make comparisons like this between current teachings of the last 75 years or so and old crazy sounding teachings from the polygamous age.

  14. April 17, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    I’m with Ugly Mahana. The two quotes are not in contradiction. BY paints a dichotomy by stating that leaving a marriage is the opposite of living the religion and embracing the gospel.

    Seth: My understanding is that most polygamous wives and their children supported themselves anyway.

    -Books (looking for an 8 cow wife, on a 2 chicken budget.)

    P.S. According to “A Book of Mormons”, BY had 14 of his 56 wives divorce/leave him.

  15. Doc
    April 17, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Seth R.,
    Is their really a difference between being the 56th wife of BY and being single in terms of supporting your children financially? It is hard for me in these particular cases to say money or security had anything to do with staying married.

  16. DavidH
    April 17, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    11 & 12. My G-G-grandmother left, with her four children, and divorced my G-G-grandfather (leaving him with only one wife), because he would not follow the Prophet’s call to return from San Bernardino to Zion during the Utah war (he had only moved four times before at the Prophet’s request). She was then sealed to my step-G-G-grandfather instead as his eighth (and last) wife, with whom she had another five children. She raised all 9 children in the Church. The children of the wife who stayed with her husband grew up to be honorable members of their communities in California, but with no connection to the Church.

    I am not sure how Elder Oaks’ counsel would have applied to her–whether the counsel would have been to stay with her first husband and hope that he might return to Zion or to Church activity, or whether the counsel would be to leave eventually for another husband who was more committed to the Church, which is what she ended up doing.

    As far as I know, no one ever told my G-G-grandmother that leaving her first eternal marriage was in violation of celestial or gospel principles–I think many of the Church leaders and members at the time thought it was a good thing, especially since she was sealed almost right away to another man.

  17. normie
    April 17, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    Interesting, DavidH.

    My g-g-g-grandmother left my g-g-g-grandfather at the same time, when they were also living in San Bernadino. She left him because he refused to become a polygamist. As he writes it in his journal, the Utah War didn’t have much to do with it, but she did think he was ignoring the brethren. He discusses the split between members in San Bernadino between those who moved back and those that stayed.

    She moved to Beaver and they wrote for many years, she insisting that me move to Utah and become polygamist. Eventually they reconciled–she did not divorce marry anyone else. But he never moved to Utah, he never took any other wives, and they never lived together again–but visited one another.

  18. normie
    April 17, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    (oops, not trying to threadjack. I guess the on-point, uh, point was that neither of them ultimately wanted a divorce? however, further as to the subject of divorce, Sarah Barringer Gordon’s book opened my eyes to the astounding prevalence of divorce (not just in polygamous marriages) of the Saints [and others] in Utah Territory. my g-g-g-grandfather’s fellow missionary in Tahiti was interesting illustration.

    After this man left on his mission, his wife disappeared. That is, she left the Saints and he never heard from her again. A few years into his mission, he married a Tahitian member–after consulting with my g-g-g-g and wondering whether it would be okay to marry without divorcing his wife. Somehow he concluded it was okay and went ahead with the marriage. Sometime after marrying the woman, he met up with my g-g-g-g, who asked, as the head of the missionary efforts, some equivalent of “what does the Spirit say?” followed by “if you feel good about it, then i do too.”

  19. It's Not Me
    April 18, 2007 at 12:36 am

    There will always be exceptions to commandments or counsel given by the brethren. I don’t know that we need to get worked up about whether such-and-such ancestor would be in compliance with Elder Oaks’ counsel. First, that was a different time. Second, as state already, there will always be exceptions (and justifiably so). The trick is knowing whether or not your personal circumstances really qualifies as such.

  20. Clair
    April 18, 2007 at 1:33 am

    I prefer the following comment on marriage from Brigham Young:

    “But the whole subject of the marriage relation is not in my reach, nor in any other man’s reach on this earth. It is without beginning of days or end of years; it is a hard matter to reach. We can tell some things with regard to it; it lays the foundation for worlds, for angels, and for the Gods; for intelligent beings to be crowned with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. In fact, it is the thread which runs from the beginning to the end of the holy Gospel of Salvation—of the Gospel of the Son of God; it is from eternity to eternity.” JD 2:90.

  21. plutarch
    April 18, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    This not-really-dialogue of quotations is, as Debs (5) suggests, a matter of historical and social context. Marriage was pretty clearly thought of differently in Brigham Young’s time than it is in ours (part of Dallin Oaks’ point, maybe). But the respective evils (or near-evils) being talked about are quite different.

    I’ve read about what a change it meant had taken place in American society when a divorced man (Reagan) could be elected president in 1980. But the Mormons were far ahead of the rest of the country in that, too, even though we don’t do elections. More than a hundred years ago, a man became president of the church after having divorced his first wife two or three decades previously. Not Brigham Young, although it has been correctly observed that there were several divorces associated with him. It was Joseph F. Smith, who hadn’t done at all well with his first marriage. And now, under current policies he couldn’t be a bishop without First Presidency approval. Just another example of how we’ve gone from being social radicals to being social conservatives, and how one aspect of society has changed (and is continuing to change) around us, too.

    It’s pretty clear that marriage and divorce were different things under polygamy than they are either in US society in general or in the church now.

  22. April 23, 2007 at 8:19 am

    Yah! That’s my favorite BY quote! But you’d have to understand the whole context to particularly relish it…

  23. April 23, 2007 at 11:31 am

    BTW, please, anyone–any info on what happened at the next conference?? I searched but could never find it…

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