‘Tis the season … to talk about polygamy, apparently. Kurt Manwaring recently sat down with Brian and Laura Hales for a question and answer session about polygamy. They have spent decades researching and writing about plural marriage (past and present), approaching the subject as faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s a very interesting interview to read through, so I recommend hopping on over to read it here. What follows on this page is a co-post to the one over at Kurt Manwaring’s site, with excerpts and some discussion on the subject.
One topic they discussed early on was the “Latter-day Saint Perspectives” podcast that they run. Laura discussed the origin of the podcast, stating that:
The idea for the podcast arose from a conversation I had with a Swedish member of the Church. In 2016, Brian and I gave a presentation in Gottingen, Sweden, on Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. After the conference, an attendee approached me about the need for better resources on Church history for members living outside the United States.
At the time, these members only had easy access to information that presented polar views. My new friend reinforced the point that struggling members lose trust in resources produced by the institutional Church, only leaving antagonistic sources as a place to reach out for answers to their questions about Church history and doctrine. More books were not the solution because of the difficulty of purchasing them overseas, so a podcast emerged as the best option.
Given that the podcasts have been “downloaded in hundreds of countries, millions of times,” she stated that: “As it turns out, many members have the same types of questions I have about Latter-day Saint history and doctrine.”
And, of course, polygamy is one of the subjects that people have lots of questions about in the Church, even if we don’t always want to talk about it (I suppose polygamy is the Bruno of the Church). In one of my recent posts about plural marriage, one of the comments was that: “The more I learn about polygamy, the more troubling I find it. I was disturbed by the idea of polygamy all my teenage years. … I fail to see how learning more about these horrible things would help anybody come to terms with it. For me, at least, learning more about the history of polygamy has eroded my faith.” The comment was made in response to my stating that embracing talking about polygamy can be helpful in coming to terms with our history. And, to be honest, I can sympathize with Emily’s comment. What studying polygamy has done to help me is to understand why those who chose to practice the principle embraced it and advocated for plural marriages and how they felt about it. While I can’t say that it has necessarily overcome all of my concerns about the principle, it has helped me understand their choices. Laura Hales got at some of that same idea in discussing her experience in researching Helen Mar Kimball:
I find it ironic that someone who was such an ardent advocate for the practice of polygamy during her lifetime is now held up as the poster child for its abuses. The controversy seems to be laser focused on the detail that she was fourteen years old at the time of her union. Despite Joseph Smith’s other young brides, including one nearly the same age as she, Helen is nearly always thrust to the forefront.
A few years ago, I decided to delve deeply into her personal writings to try to understand her beyond the two dimensional caricature often portrayed in polygamy literature. Though not directly addressing her struggles, by reading “against the bias grain,” her autobiographical writings provide answers to the questions that fuel modern debates about Nauvoo polygamous unions.
We cheat ourselves when we limit ourselves to a cursory review of her writings. Helen had a story to tell, and she told it.
Listening to their voices is important in understanding their experiences. And, as Brian Hales noted, “with all the online sources available today, anyone can investigate the primary documents (or transcripts) for themselves if they please. All that remains is for individuals to decide how to interpret them.”
Another comment that came up on a different recent post I did about polygamy had to do with not including names and quotes from women. As Joni stated: “What really strikes me when reading this article is how many males are mentioned by name (at least a dozen) vs how many females (one, and only in passing). Polygamy disproportionately affected women – mathematically, it would have to – but the only stories we remember and tell are about men.” It was an important call-out, and a topic that Laura Harris Hales also discussed in the interview:
There is a need for a broader discussion of nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint women who cry out for identities beyond a wife number or an age. Filtering their lives only through their relationships to their husbands does little to resolve the silences of women’s history. Rather, it perpetuates an imbalanced historical record by favoring the perspectives of men.
These women beckon closer examination as observers listen to their voices and respect not only their wounds but also their sacrifices, their hopes, their beliefs, and their diversity. As a culture, we need to learn how to embrace non-defensively the range of these experiences.
In my own family, lore held that James Lewis was an active Church leader in southern Utah, but he never married plurally. One day, I stumbled across James’s 1856 marriage to Emma Bateman, a bride almost three decades his junior. Emma never lived with James, and their child did not survive infancy. With their divorce, Emma’s story was silenced as she was effectively expunged from Lewis family history.
We need to reconstruct these gaps in our history rather than reinforcing their erasure. Only then can we heal.
We need to be better at discussing the women who practiced plural marriage.
One recently-published book that does a good job in that area is Brittany Chapman Nash’s Let’s Talk about Polygamy. I know that I’ve discussed it on two occasions here, but I’m a fan, so will continue to shamelessly plug the book. It also came up in the question-and-answer session, and Laura Harris Hales stated her opinion that:
In her expansive treatment of the Latter-day Saint practice of polygamy, Brittany Chapman Nash is able to talk about the most difficult topics in a non-alarmist manner. This is the first time we have had a devotional history published by a devotional imprint that talks about the uncomfortable aspects of Latter-day Saint polygamy in such a transparent manner. Its landmark importance should not be underestimated.
Brittany does not skirt, justify, or explain the difficult aspects of plural families. She does attempt to add balance, however. While some may censure this approach, it allows Nash to convey more information to members who might turn away from critical treatments.
Nash’s artful use of narrative reconstructions reminds readers that we are talking about real people who lived real lives in the past. Their stories cannot be ignores even if we disagree with their life choices.
I hope Let’s Talk about Polygamy is an itty bitty book that will inspire gigantic dialogues.
I agree, and hope it will inspire further dialogue.
There is a lot more interesting content in the interview, including discussion about key events in the 20th century that affect how we discuss plural marriage, the Gospel Topics Essays on the subject, speculation on what might have happened if Joseph Smith had lived a full lifetime, and more. Again, I recommend hopping on over to read the full question and answer session here. It’s worth the time to see what Laura and Brian Hales have to say.
I like Brian and Laura’s approach. They make all the data they can find available–and then pretty-much let it speak for itself.
Whilst I abhor the thought of polygamy, I’d love to hear from those with a more nuanced view than my own, and would love to have access to histories that recount the lived experience of both polygamous parents and their children. I’m fascinated to try to get my head around how these relationships might possibly ‘work’ for the participants. Can anyone point me in the right direction?
The problem with the Hales work is having assumptions of Joseph’s piety from the outset. Joseph acts in many well-documented, manipulative ways to marry and have sex with many young brides, including his own foster daughters. Even though many of those women stayed in the church and advocated for polygamy, many fled from it or rejected Joseph’s proposals and were treated as outcasts and publicly ridiculed by Joseph. Because there is no universal way the woman viewed polygamy later in life, and their opinion seems much more dependent on whether they were staying “faithful” to the church as opposed to being willing to leave it behind, we cannot use Helen Mar’s testimony, or the temple lot testimonies, to justify polygamy because the women were okay with it. Too many recognized the harm, control, and abuse within the practice at that time for us to say it was morally acceptable due to the societal norms of the time.
If you assume Joseph was acting with the best of intentions, there are not enough explanations to justify his actions. But that’s not what members of the church are supposed to do anyway. Are prophets perfect? We always say they aren’t. But if we cannot point out the unethical behavior and abuses of modern ecclesiastical leaders, it will only lead us farther down the path of widespread systemic abuse as seen in the Catholic Church.
People are generally willing to admit that Brigham Young was hurtful and wrong in his practice of polygamy. Why can we not admit the same about Joseph?