Last week the Utah senate voted unanimously to decriminalise polygamy. Some polygamists rejoiced for this step in the right direction while some did not care what position the state adopted. Most non-Mormons—and many LDS—started to criticise the move while a few wondered if the LDS Church would start re-introducing ‘the principle’ of plural marriage.
Plural marriage is about to be decriminalised, not legalised. In a society in which pretty much anything goes, why should being committed to more than one person be against the law? As for the LDS Church, even though plural marriage remains a doctrine (from the past and for the after-life), the Church is the most anti-polygamist organisation I know of. I don’t think plural marriage will ever be taught or practised ever again.
Coincidentally, the conversation I had over New Year’s drinks took us to plural marriage and the role of women in Mormon history and doctrine.
Fran: So, Mormons believe in having more than one wife, right?
Me: Yes and no. When it was practised the press and public opinion went mad. It caused a lot of tension in the Church too from the 1840s until the late 1880s. Not everyone was a polygamist, but all leaders were. When the U.S. government introduced laws against plural marriage, the leaders who didn’t hide went to prison. It felt as if the government was going to destroy all the Mormons had built. The decision was made to relinquish what was considered an essential part of our religion. ¹ The Church started to abandon plural marriage from 1890 and has made it worthy of excommunication since the 1940s. Today the Mormon Church does not teach, practise or condone polygamy. It fights it.
Fran: What about modern-day polygamists? I saw a few TV programmes.
Me: Fundamentalist Mormons aren’t part of the LDS Church (apart from those who keep their belief in plural marriage and other doctrines quiet). Many Fundamentalists have never been members of the Church. Fundamentalists are called thus not because they’re hard-line—some of them are more liberal in some areas than their LDS counterparts—but because they hold on to those sacred teachings and practices deemed essential to reach the highest level of ‘heaven’ and that the Church has discarded or watered down.
In a society in which pretty much anything goes, why should being committed to more than one person be against the law?
Fran: The problem I have with polygamy is that the men have all the power.
Me (laughing): Well, that’s not what my polygamist friends would say—they’d say their wives have the power! I’ve never lived the principle, so I cannot say. I imagine it must be very hard for a woman to share her husband with another woman. To me, it seems they are those making the bigger sacrifice. But I think men have their own struggles.
Fran: Isn’t polygamy an excuse for men to have sex with other women?
Me: I think we live in a society that is so permissive that men really don’t need to commit to a woman for life (and for eternity) to have sex with other women! Maybe the religious kind who use it to justify their sexual desires “in the name of religion” soon realise the effort and commitment that’s required.
Fran: But how can a woman feel special? How can a Dad spend enough time with his kids if he’s between several homes?
Me: Sadly, I know plenty of monogamous wives who don’t feel special, and parents who don’t spend much time with their kids. I think every family is different.
Fran: What about the abuse and the child-brides?
Me: Abuse of any kind has got nothing to do with plural marriage. A lot of people are in abusive relationships in the monogamous world too. Entering into something sacred doesn’t protect from falling from grace or from the darkness in some people to come out. Not everyone is going to be faithful in the covenants they make.
As for child-brides, it is true that some groups arrange marriages with underage girls. However, the vast majority of Mormon Fundamentalists do not condone underage marriage/sex. TV programmes like to sensationalise things. That’s how they get ratings. When a man in the U.K. has sex with a teenage girl, the press won’t make it about his being an Anglican, a Catholic or a Methodist. That’s the difference.
Fran: I still don’t understand why a woman would choose polygamy.
Me: I’m not a woman. But some of the polygamist wives I know told me they enjoyed the independence it gave them. One is a widow now. She was a writer who didn’t want to give up her life. It suited her better. Others told me plural marriage enabled them to pursue a career or to go back to college since another was at home. There are also more people to love and to be loved by. Some wives told me they enjoy having other women around—and one said she could sometimes enjoy a lie-in knowing the kids are looked after before school. I know a wife who pushed her husband to take another and complained he wasn’t looking hard enough.
I believe Jesus was married. And if Christ was too ‘holy’ for that, what does that say about women?
Fran: Aren’t those women just brainwashed?
Me: Many of these women are first or second generation polygamists. Those I know are Independents—they’re not part of any group and there is no pressure. Some have a high-school education, others are university graduates. Some of them are homemakers and some are lawyers. All the plural wives I know are wise and intelligent women. Some people see plural marriage as degrading women but Mormon doctrine gives them a noble role.
Fran: How can you say that being a second, third or fourth wife is a noble position?
Me: There’s no ranking. It’s about living the higher law of plural marriage. The bottom line is that these women choose that life because they believe it will help them become queens and goddesses in the next world. It’s the driving force!
In Mormonism, God’s consort is our Heavenly Mother. Mother Eve chose to ‘fall’ so we could be and we are so may grow and become like God. No other religion elevates women the way Mormons do! Catholics did elevate Mother Mary but stripped her of her sexuality and made her less of a woman in the process. Many Christians are horrified when I tell them I believe Jesus was married. And if Christ was too ‘holy’ for that, what does that say about women?
Fran: Religion and sex are two separate things.
Me: In our religion, sex is a good thing. We have a body like God has a body. The physical is not in opposition to the spiritual. For us, God has sex. Jesus has sex. The woman is not seen as a temptress or the reason for evil in this world. Mormonism made woman the companion of God and the companion the Saviour. Equal with the men but with their own special position and role.
That belief in their own godlike destiny and queen-like purpose on Earth set Mormon women apart from their American sisters. I am persuaded that gave them their assertiveness and confidence in the late 1800s .
Fran: In what way were plural wives so special?
Me: It was not just a dream of heaven. It did have a huge impact in this world too.
In the 1920s women from my native France couldn’t study or work without their husband’s written permission. They couldn’t own property in their own right. French women waited until 1945 to get the right to vote. Mormon women were the first ever to vote in the U.S. in 1870. Those women could divorce and own property. In the 1870s plural wives founded and edited newspapers that aimed to give an accurate representation of themselves to the rest of America. They wrote articles defending polygamy, pushing for equal pay (and suffrage when in 1887 the U.S. Congress, in its crusade against Mormons, disfranchised them). Have you heard of Martha Hughes Cannon?
Fran: Who’s Martha Hughes Cannon?
Me: Mormon leaders wanted women to be educated and encouraged them to work. Martha went to medical school back East with other Mormon women and came back to Utah a physician. She was an independent, working woman when she chose to marry a polygamist with three wives and many children. She believed in plural marriage. That was the type of union she wanted.
What is special about her is that she ran for the State Senate—against her husband who ran as the candidate for another party. And she defeated him. The first female State Senator was a woman, a Mormon and a plural wife. ² One of my good friends is her descendant.
Fran: TV documentaries paint a very different picture!
Me: Some of my friends were featured in one of those. The crew was with them a whole week. At one point they filmed the kids playing outside and asked the youngest, who couldn’t read yet, to hold a book and sit still on the swing. When the documentary aired, that segment had horror movie music playing and the voice over claimed: “indoctrination starts very early with Fundamentalists who force their children to read religious books.”
The problem with most programmes and books about polygamy is that they’re biased or seen through the eyes of those for whom it didn’t work out. My mother is still bitter about the failure of her marriage to my father. She’s remained without a man since 1983. What picture of monogamous marriage do you think she’d paint?
But you’re right—I’ve shared the best examples. There are issues in communities that are not open. Women organisations used to be independent from the men’s but no longer are and there’s no more female publications either. It’s such a shame that after such a great start, Mormon women seem only to be encouraged to be good wives and homemakers. Being a homemaker is a high calling which has the capability of resolving many evils in the world. Many modern women choose to be homemakers when the previous generation was career-focussed, and many Mormon women, LDS or Fundamentalist inspire me. But Mormon women used to be a more visible and radical driving force that brought their own perspective. And I think we lost that.
To Be Continued