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So You Want to Talk About Polygamy?

I’ve long had an interest in understanding how and why my ancestors chose to practice polygamy.  During my time at Utah State University, I spent most of my spare time reading Mormon Studies materials and went on a polygamy binge at one point.  While reading Kathryn Daynes’s More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1890 during some downtime in the laboratory, a visiting biologist from Pakistan saw what I was reading and asked if I was preparing to take a second wife.  I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, so explained that I was not and tried to steer him away from his joking about picking up a second wife himself while in Utah.

While it’s perhaps understandable that someone who was from the opposite side of the world and a culture that does nominally accept polygamy would have some misunderstandings, it seems like many Latter-day Saints also have little grasp of polygamy beyond that it happened in the Church in the past and struggle with what they do know (myself included for most of my life).  For example, I had a mission companions who swore up and down that it was only practiced to support widows and the poor, but the husbands never had children with the plural wives (as a descendant of a couple second wives, I’m living proof that he was wrong).  Another mission companion was visibly shaken for days after an investigator talked about Joseph Smith marrying women who were already married to other men and I confirmed that it had happened.  I also remember a teenage girl giving a talk in sacrament meeting in a ward in Illinois where I served where she wrestled with the fact that early Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage.  Based on observations like these, it seems like there has been a need for an accessible overview of plural marriage for members to gain a better understanding about the principle in a setting that is not hostile to the Church.  A recently-published book—Let’s Talk About Polygamy by Brittany Chapman Nash (Deseret Book, 2021)—is a small, readable paperback that fills that need.

Let’s Talk About Polygamy is the second book in a series being published by Deseret Book that is intended to include small, approachable books on important Latter-day Saint topics, written by trusted faithful scholars.  It is small and a quick read—clocking in at 4.25” x 7” and 144 pages, it can easily be read in one evening.  In fact, the experience of reading it reminded me of reading a volume in the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press, but with more testimony and faith promotion included.  Like the Very Short Introduction books, this volume presents through a concise, but well-researched and clearly-communicated survey of its central topic.  To do so, the book is broken up into three main sections.  The first (and largest) is a chronological history of polygamy in the Church, with chapters covering specific time periods of Church history.  The second is a section devoted to how polygamy was practiced and why the earlier Saints chose to practice it.  The third section is devoted to sharing descriptions of relationships within plural marriage, given by those who lived the Principle.  While brief, it provides an introduction to most of the major discussion points with enough depth to walk away with an increased understanding of Mormon polygamy.

Another point in which Let’s Talk About Polygamy resembles the Very Short Introduction series is that it provides a thorough notes section that points readers to further reading on the topic.  One of the major criticisms of the Gospel Topics essays on polygamy was that they avoided some important studies of polygamy like Martha Bradley and Mary Woodward’s Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier (2000); Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (1981); George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy: “… But We Called It Celestial Marriage” (2008; 2nd ed. 2011); D. Michael Quinn’s research on post-manifesto polygamy; or The Persistence of Polygamy books in favor of sources like Brian Hales’s work that is heavily apologetic.  In contrast, most of the aforementioned works are cited in Let’s Talk About Polygamy, with the Persistence of Polygamy series being the first recommendation in the “Further Reading” section; Foster’s Religion and Sexuality being cited in the introduction; Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness appearing repeatedly in the notes section; while also maintaining a surprisingly intense focus on using primary sources for such a small survey on the topic (including—as one would expect from a specialist in women’s history—many female voices).  It provides a solid roadmap for more in-depth study of the subject for those who are serious about learning more.

As mentioned, this volume does come from a place of faith and commitment to the Church.  It is written by a believing Latter-day Saint with believing Latter-day Saints as the primary audience.  Because of this, there are apologetic elements woven into the fabric of the book.  I appreciated, however, that it didn’t feel like it was being crammed down my throat while reading.  The author openly acknowledges that she began her journey of studying polygamy “angry by what I saw as injustice that God required such a difficult principle to be lived” before coming to a place where she “found peace” in accepting what the polygamous Saints did and believed on their own terms.  She also wrote her view that: “We can sit in the discomfort of not having all of the answers and accept the reality that, even in important questions about polygamy, the answers may not be known right now,” even while seeking to deepen our faith by understanding and honoring their devotion.  Her style of accepting that we don’t necessarily have the answers here and openly acknowledging things like how people didn’t always find happiness in the principle, calling out coercing teenage girls to marry older men as abuses of polygamy in the Church rather than defending that reality, and bringing up other complexities and concerns about the principle permeated the book.  I loved that it was able to at least discuss difficult topics and talk openly about painful and difficult aspects of the history in a rigorous way without feeling the need to defend the Church at every turn.  Yet, alongside all of that it did so in a way that didn’t feel threatening as a member of the Church.

The only area that I felt a serious lack while reading the history section of the book was the failure to discuss Fundamentalist Mormon splinter groups.  While it does openly discuss post-Manifesto polygamy, the Reed Smoot Hearings and the Second Manifesto, the book essentially jumps from the removal of John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley from the Quorum of the Twelve to declaring that “polygamy became a relic of the past in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”  There is virtually no effort to discuss the debated revelation attributed to John Taylor, the formation of polygamous splinter movements, or the Church’s ongoing antagonism towards and struggles with polygamists throughout the twentieth century.  Perhaps this omission is justified by stating that the Fundamentalists are not members of the Church and thus aren’t a part of our history, but it’s an important topic to cover when discussing Mormon polygamy and its ongoing effects for Latter-day Saints.

In any case, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Brittany Chapman Nash’s Let’s Talk About Polygamy.  In addition to being readable, brief, and thorough, it’s also highly affordable, at $11.99 for the paperback.  I would definitely add this as a must-read for any member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is looking to understand more about polygamy and might even recommend it to non-members too as a way to gain insight.  And, gratefully, I was able to read the whole book on the train without anyone asking me if I was considering taking a second wife.

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