The wisdom of one-room schools

I think Kaimi’s metaphor is apt, maybe in more ways than he intended. Every few weeks, or every few days, there’s another discussion of polygamy, and some country hick who’s new to the big city suggests in breathless wide-eyed wonder that plural marriage was a way to care for widows and other women without families. Thereupon much merriment ensues among those who are wise to the ways of the world. Who could be so naive?

But then I read what Richard Bushman told the Pew Forum a few weeks ago:

In actual fact, polygamy seemed to have served a function in society. We now have a fine-grained study of polygamy in one community where we know every family in the community and all of the details about them. And what polygamy seems to have been was a way in which young women without male protection – no father, no older brother, no near relative to care for them – were absorbed into Mormon society.

Polygamy went up when the immigration rates went up. And the young women who came into these families in this little town were young women in that position. Not all of them – but that was the single most common type of plural wife. More than 50 percent of them fit this description. So it was a way of caring for people and may have contributed to the resilience of the society.

Bushman seems to be referring to Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001. And so we are presented with a dilemma: are we going to believe the pre-eminent living scholar of Mormonism and his citation of published research, or the collective wisdom of ldsskepticguy, CESgrad2003, and TheologianX?

There is, of course, plenty more to be said about polygamy. I agree in principle with Kristine that more reading on the subjects of discussion is a good thing, but I also agree in practice with Lisa; if I think I have something worthwhile to say, I’ll say it, and figure out the footnotes later. But it’s helpful to remind ourselves that the world of Mormon blogs can develop its own received wisdom, and sometimes we are all full of cr*p.

31 comments for “The wisdom of one-room schools

  1. June 22, 2007 at 5:17 am

    And so we are presented with a dilemma: are we going to believe the pre-eminent living scholar of Mormonism and his citation of published research, or the collective wisdom of ldsskepticguy, CESgrad2003, and TheologianX?

    Beautiful. That had me laughing.

  2. June 22, 2007 at 9:19 am

    Well Jonathan, we also need to take into account how poorly these women were looked after in the 1800s as well.

    That’s one thing about Mormons. We never get the benefit of historical context when we’re being analyzed.

  3. June 22, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    Plural Marriage can be a benefit to society IF there are strict regulations placed on it. This will weed out the bad apples and preserve the institution for those who cna live it equitably.

  4. Ben There
    June 22, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Considering that the theology was in place soundly before the immigration rate was up, I don’t believe this is a correct conclusion as to “why” polygamy was practiced. It may have been a practical benefit of polygamy, but it is not the “why” of polygamy. Look at today’s fundamentalist communities: their families often talk of how they enjoy practical benefits of polygamy, such as more individuality, more helping hands, built-in babysitting and childcare, etc. But those are not “why” the fundamentalists practice plural marriage, they are merely the practical benefits of a practice built on a belief in the revelation to Joseph Smith on the subject of plural marriage.

    Consider how the Word of Wisdom is viewed. We don’t obey it for the health benefits, we obey it because it is a commandment of the current prophets, and if there are health benefits, those are just the side benefits of obeying the prophet.

  5. Adam Greenwood
    June 22, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    We obey the WoW for both reasons, sir. And if Deseret Mormons were using polygamy in part as a kind of social security, then that was part of their purpose. 50%+ is too many to have been accidental.

    You’re also asking the wrong question. People want to know why God commands things, not why Mormons do things. If we find that the commandment carries some serious incidental benefits, its plausible to think those might have been God’s purposes for giving the commandment, even if we primarily keep the commandment to be obedient and not to achieve the benefit.

  6. Ben There
    June 22, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage starting in the very early 1830’s had nothing to do with excess female immigrants.

    Plural marriage practitioners who were sent to Canada and Mexico to continue the practice after the 1890 Manifesto had nothing to do with ensuring homes for excess immigrants either.

    The rhetoric behind the practice of Plural Marriage was that it was an essential ordinance for exaltation, not an essential social practice to care for excess immigrants. Throughout the late 1800s, “plural marriage” was synonymous with “celestial marriage” in the doctrinal teachings.

    As for the WoW: the WoW is specifically in the scripture declared to NOT be a commandment, even though the church presently views it as such. Whatever reasons may be or whatever current or past practices may be, have no impact on the actual theology of the revelations concerned.

    Why did God command plural marriage? Because he said it was the most holy principle and the way the gods live.

    Why did God command the Word of Wisdom? God didn’t. God explicitly said it was advice that was adaptable to all Saints. Heber J. Grant made it into a commandment, not God.

  7. Frank McIntyre
    June 22, 2007 at 2:49 pm


    Go read Jacob and you’ll discover that one reason God authorizes polygamy is to “raise up righteous seed unto him”. Thus there can be both practical and greater considerations. And the people who implement God’s plan do not always know all of the reasons God does something. And neither, presumably, do you.

  8. Adam Greenwood
    June 22, 2007 at 2:59 pm

    Technically, BT, God didn’t write down the Word of Wisdom, Joseph Smith or one of his secretaries did. If you agree that the Word of Wisdom is a commandment, I dunno what the distinction between God doing it and Heber J. Grant doing it is (see D&C 1:38).

    Whatever the rhetoric for polygamy at the time, we don’t practice it now and our prophets have rejected the idea that the continued practice of polygamy is necessary for exaltation. So you either have to think that polygamy wasn’t inspired at all or you have to posit some other reason for God commanding it. In fact, in the 19th Century the necessity for exaltation wasn’t the only reason for polygamy that was on offer in the church. A common defense was that without polygamy poor women had to resort to prostitution and men whose virility was not slaked with one wife gave them custom.

  9. bbell
    June 22, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    Its evident in my view that Polygamy was multi-faceted.

    1. It had strong doctrinal components in agreement with Ben There. There was some strong preaching in favor of polygamy from the usual suspects promising exhaltation to those who practiced it and condemnation to those who decided not to.
    2. It also did indeed have a practical element as well. The study that Bushman points out shows this.

    I am a direct gggrandchild from a Danish immigrant woman who spoke limited English and was married into a poly family soon after arrival into the SL valley

    WW is the same. God commands and it has some good practical applications as well

  10. Ray
    June 22, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Ben There,

    This is going to be a personal request, and it will be quite blunt. Please forgive me for not being more gentle, but I’ve tried that multiple times and it didn’t work.

    It’s obvious your slant on polygamy is, well, slanted – and that is an observation about everything I have seen you post everywhere on this topic. I understand that and accept that and am fine with that, but I have to tell you that the fine-line nit-picking and condescension is getting really old.

    Nobody in this post has said – or even implied – that the prime reason polygamy was instituted originally was to take care of the social needs of women. Nobody. Not Bushman. Not anyone else. etc. ad infinitum. Please stop twisting everything that everyone says regarding polygamy into something dishonest or apostate. We don’t accept its continued practice; we do accept its cessation. Please accept and get over that. Believe whatever you want to believe, but quit representing the other side in such farcical ways.

  11. mlu
    June 22, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    NIce shot, Jonathon. Three pointer.

    It does seem a bit odd to try to hold in place exclusive categories separating a principal and its practical consequences–though it’s a common failing of citified intellectuals.

    Wendell Berry views morality as long-term practicality, which seems right. God is smart, though in an embodied way. His direction, as with the Word of Wisdom, is full of practical benefit. Making things work would seem to be part of the plan. A full-bodied love of the Gospel allows one to harmonize the most basic bodily urges with the loftiest of moral intellectualization.

    After all, what is marriage?

    A) a divine principle
    B) an exceedingly practical arrangement for managing many of life’s demands
    C) a lot of fun and a great joy
    D) all of the above, and more, except maybe for Ben, who may feel compelled to choose from among them

  12. Ben There
    June 22, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    Dear Ray,

    I do get worked up about this issue sometimes. It may be because I have significant post-manifesto, church-sanctioned plural marriage in my blood (literally) and so much of the discussion surrounding plural marriage belittles and negates the many faithful church members who sacrificed substantially to carry the principle forward, and yet were essentially shunned. These people were given a specific commission to continue what their leaders called “the most holy principle” and they obeyed, and did so, despite the VERY anti-polygamy feelings of the general church membership since then.

    So, yeah, I do have a bit of a personal investment in it, though I don’t practice plural marriage or have any plans to or desire to. When most LDS-centered polygamy discussions tend to caricaturise the issue, yes I may tend to respond with hyperbole. Mitt Romney can tell the world “I can’t imagine anything more awful than polygamy” and such hyperbole represents a lot of present-day Mormons. I feel I have the right to participate in discussions on the subject, and show the lack of logic or coherence in competing theories or arguments.

    I understand that the descendants of persons who killed or were killed in the Mountain Meadows Massacre tend to have very strong feelings about the matter, despite being removed several generations from the event. African-American persons who are descended from slaves often have very strong feelings despite being removed several generations from the event. Some descendents of church-sanctioned post-Manifesto plural marriage also have very strong feelings. I just choose to express mine from time to time.

    Ban me if you want, whatever. I thought the purpose of the blogs was to encourage open, frank discussions of often difficult issues.


  13. Ray
    June 22, 2007 at 4:14 pm


    I now will say this much more gently: I NEVER said I didn’t want you to post – and I have absolutely NO authoirty to ban you or anyone else. What I said is that we all recognize your slant – that it comes across very clearly in what you say whenever polygamy is discussed. I welcome your input – just not your hyperbole when it twists “there was a soical benefit and focus to the way polygamy was practiced in many communities” into “polygamy was instituted to take care of disadvantaged women” – which, I repeat, nobody said.

    A tiny bit less gently: Jonathon’s post was a very insightful post about reconsidering our assumptions about polygamy and how it was seen and practiced at the time. The comments prior to yours added to that general tone. Yours completely ignored that nuance and launched into a bit of a tirade. I can’t speak for everyone, but the nature of the immediate responses indicated that others felt the same thing.

    Back to gently: I am the product of polygamy on both sides of my family; my wife is on one side. I have a DEEP and ABIDING admiration, respect and darn-near reverence for them. I would never disparage their dedication to living that command in the face of terrible persecution. All I’m asking is that you don’t read everything everybody writes assuming that we are doing so. If someone makes a stupid comment that implies such an attitude, by all means call them out on it. Nothing like that happened in this thread, however.

  14. Ben There
    June 22, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    Dear Ray,

    I re-read Jonathan’s post just now. It looks like I mis-read it the first time, so I could see why you would find my response off-target. What I got out of my first reading is was this:

    “…that plural marriage was a way to care for widows and other women without families. Thereupon much merriment ensues among those who are wise to the ways of the world. Who could be so naive?”

    To which Jonathan responds to his question about who could be so naive, with a “But then I read…” about what Bushman said

    I thought Jonathan was suggesting that Bushman’s conclusion was supportive of the position taken by those who dismiss plural marriage as a purely social practice (a large portion of the uninformed masses) to the ignoring of the deep theological doctrines and implications. I know Bushman would know better, which is why I was a bit confused.

    Please accept my apology for being careless in my initial reading and then responding to things that weren’t said. I feel silly now.


  15. Ray
    June 23, 2007 at 12:43 am

    Thanks, Ben. I’ve done that myself more than once. I’m fine erasing the discussion from my memory bank and starting over at square one. Heaven knows my wife has had to do that for me on too many occasions to count!

  16. RayB
    June 23, 2007 at 8:16 am

    If one accepts the argument that plural marriage in olden times benefited young women who had no male looking out for them, then could one not also argue that young women moving in with young men today serves the same purpose? It may be true that polygamy did provide some kind of manly support for those women, but that wasn’t really the basis for it…was it?

  17. Adam Greenwood
    June 23, 2007 at 11:24 am

    Unmarried and childless young women today can provide for themselves without inconvenience.

  18. John G
    June 23, 2007 at 11:33 am

    Ray, It’s one thing to express a different point of view about a topic or even about another person’s viewpoint, but you are way out of line to attack the person and label their thoughts with your judgements. Please spare the rest of us and stick to stating your thoughts not your invective.

  19. Adam Greenwood
    June 23, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Stick a sock in it, John G. Peace has already broken out.

  20. Ben There
    June 23, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    17 Adam: You are absolutely correct. But what about today’s single mothers–say a young woman who had a child or two outof wedlock, or whose young and irresponsible husband abondoned her with the children–or what about young widows with several children? Lord knows there are more and more of these everyday, in this time of war.

    Such women (especially in the LDS church) find it awfully hard to find a man willing to accept them with their children and all the extra responsibility that entails. Men in the LDS church seem to not be interested in marrying such a woman, especially if she was sealed to her dead husband, since the man who marries her could not be sealed to her according to current church practice.

    This places these woman at a severe disadvantage: marry a man of the world…but wait! Men of the world are also not all that interested in having a gaggle of children right out of the gate. It seems like widows with children should be able to call on the church for their sustenance (at least that is what D&C 83:6 says), but in practice the church does not generally provide long-term support for widows and orphans through its current welfare system.

  21. Ben There
    June 23, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    John G: I appreciate that you defended my opinions. But alas, I really did mis-read this post, and responded to it as if it had said something it didn’t. So I was a bit off-kilter, responding to what I thought I read, rather than what Jonathan actually posted.

  22. Adam Greenwood
    June 23, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    Ben There,

    You have three traps to avoid when you’re thinking about commandments and their purposes.

    The first trap is thinking that if a particular purpose really justifies one commandment, then anything that achieves that purpose is justified. But this just isn’t so. Even if a purpose of polygamy would be to provide for women, prositution would not also be justiifed on the grounds that it provided for women.

    The second trap is thinking that if there’s a commandment that achieves a purpose, the commandment must remain in place as long as it achieves that purpose. But this isn’t so either. Sometimes there are other considerations, such as the Federal govt. holding a gun to your head, reduced isolation, changing mores, and so on. The sacrament would probably still be efficacious if it were blessed venom, but I would probably be justified in not drinking it.

    The third trap is thinking that a commandment has one and only one purpose. Polygamy, for example, may have had a social welfare purpose, a symbolic restoration-of-all-things purpose, a solidarity-inspiring purpose, and so on. As some of the purposes are accomplished, the remaining purposes alone may no longer justify the commandment even if they are still viable purposes.

    P.S. The straits of a single mother in modern America aren’t really comparable to the straits of a single woman in an isolated, hardscrabble agricultural economy.

    P.P.S. Two worldly models of polygamy are African polygamy where a somewhat ne’er-do-well husband lets his wives do the work and the Near Eastern harem model (I’m generalizing and oversimplifying). It seems to me that as the church became less poor, less communitarian, and more integrated into modernity, and as women generally became more able to make their way in the modern economy, continued practice of polygamy would shift more towards these models.

  23. Ben There
    June 23, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Adam: I do not disagree with you, for the most part. I was just presenting a current situation that does exist for which we have no real system in place to remedy.

    But I would suggest you get to know some single mothers with several children before suggesting that their plight is not “comparable” to a single woman in an “isolated, hardscrabble agricultural economy”. In the latter, single women often became teachers, nurses, and such. In today’s society, the plight of a single mother (especially one with more than one child) is at least as hard as that of a single woman on the frontier.

  24. Ben There
    June 23, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Adam: In response to your PPS, I would suggest you take a look at those who do practice Mormon plural marriage today, and I would point out that they do not generally fall into either of the two worldly models of polygamy that you mention.

  25. Adam Greenwood
    June 24, 2007 at 11:08 am

    Ben There,

    I actually do know single mothers with several children. If someone disagrees with you, its not always because they’re ignorant. They all have it hard, but the ones who are in really dire straits are the ones with lots of bastards by different fathers. They usually need more than just better church welfare.

    The fringe polygamists you tout aren’t really comparable, because they’re much more isolated and less integrated into the economy than the much, much, much larger body of the church is. I’m not really one who believes that these groups are committing ritual sacrifice and all the other scare stories you here, but their problems with expelling young men and their reliance on welfare are fairly well-documented.

  26. Ben There
    June 27, 2007 at 11:28 pm

    Adam: I don’t see where I called you ignorant, and I hope you didn’t think I was implying you are.

    I also know some single mothers with several children, and see the sacrifices they make, even the ones without bastard children. There are good women whose husbands are flakes, and leave them, and their children. And yes, they would need a lot more than just better church welfare. I feel for them, and applaud them for the sacrifices they make on behalf of their children. There’s a special place in heaven for the single mother who is such by no fault of her own, I believe. Unfortunately you can’t always tell that the guy or girl you marry is going to become stupid later on, and a lot of women are in that boat.

    As for your second paragraph in #25, the comments you make are really only comparable to the FLDS and to an extent the Kingston group, both of whom (together) represent (at best) 1/5 of the fundamentalist community as a whole. But the much larger body of fringe polygamists living regular suburban lives in the Salt Lake area do not practice the extreme and foul practices you mention, such as expelling young men and defrauding the welfare system. Many are actually quite wealthy and have gotten so by being pretty well integrated into the economy by owning successful businesses. I’ve known people from both the FLDS (Colorado City, Arizona) and groups such as the AUB (in Bluffdale) and they are worlds apart in practice, about all they do have in common is the practice of plural marriage, but in widely varying manners.

  27. Belle
    June 28, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    As a woman, I’m in step with Mitt Romney, I can’t imagine any thing worse than polygamy! I think one of the most difficult aspects of the past practice of polygamy (in the LDS church) is never having the “Why?” really answered. I don’t understand nor do I think I’ll ever understand why there was or is a need for polygamy, including in the after life. Polygamy and other treatment of women in the church are a huge test of my faith.

  28. Adam Greenwood
    June 28, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Ben There,
    I don’t think there’s enough of those integrated Big Love polygamists to matter. But if the polygamy were a dominant social paradigm, I think it would tend to slip either in the African or the Middle Eastern direction.

  29. Mark N.
    June 28, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    It may be true that polygamy did provide some kind of manly support for those women, but that wasn’t really the basis for it…was it?

    Maybe it was just a test: “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them…” (Abr. 3:25).

    It’s kind of interesting how often some form of “if they will do all things whatsoever I command them” shows up in the scriptures. Is it possible that our salvation really is based, to some extent or other, on how often we’re willing to do some seemingly ridiculous thing that we’re asked to do, and that what it is doesn’t matter nearly as much as what our response to the request is?

    That wrankles me to some extent, but maybe it shouldn’t.

  30. Adam Greenwood
    June 28, 2007 at 8:02 pm


  31. Mark N.
    July 2, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Must have been thinking of wrinkles.

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