book review and links related to Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard Van Wagoner
“Van Wagoner has made an important contribution to the study of Mormon polygamy. . . . This topic continues to be of historical as well as current interest, and this volume helps to put the doctrine and the practice into focus.”
— Utah Historical Quarterly
This book discusses the issue in a frank and honest manner without taking sides in the difficult matter of LDS polygamy. He describes the complete history of Mormon polygamy from its origins in the 1830s to the current day fundamentalists. One of the more interesting aspects of the book are the reasons why there continue to be people who believe polygamy to be a “God sanctioned” practice.
The book lays to rest many of the false assumptions that are currently held by practicing Utah Mormons regarding the reasons for polygamy such as: there being an abundance of women who wouldn’t otherwise be able to be married, old women marrying into polygamy for financial support purposes, only the first wife having sexual relations with the husband, or the claim that such a small percentage practiced it (For instance, President Hinckley claimed on Larry King Live that only “between two percent and five percent of our people were involved in it. It was a very limited practice”. And President Joseph F. Smith argued before Congressional hearings that only 3 percent were polygamous. They are giving a less than complete picture by making such claims. The only way to come up with these low numbers is to take only certain places at certain times and use adult polygamous males as the numerator and everyone–including kids and polygamous wives–as the denominator. The fact is that among Church leadership plural marriage was the norm and a very significant portion of adult females were polygamous. Likewise, a significant portion of children, including my ancestors, were born into polygamous families.) means that polygamy really was an insignificant part of Mormon history and doctrine. Also detailed are the numerous post-Manifesto sanctioned marriages, the Smoot hearings, the resignations of members of the quorum of the 12, and the excommunication of John Taylor’s son (who was an apostle). The book shows how the statements found on the church’s official site are false since polygamy wasn’t practiced only in ‘the latter half of the 19th century’ and it didn’t end with Wilford Woodruff’s declaration (which wasn’t a revelation).
One of the more disturbing portions of the content to currently believing members is the extensive documentation of the church leaders’ practice of “lying for the Lord”. Van Wagoner quotes a church leader in Chapter 17 who wishes that “simple honesty” could be practiced rather than the tradition of “something higher than honesty” which doesn’t really exist.
If you are interested in the history of Mormon polygamy I recommend this book over Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith or No Man Knows My History which are both worth reading, but they don’t go into the history or detail of Mormon polygamy in nearly as much depth as Van Wagoner. These two books also don’t deal with post Joseph Smith era polygamy.
Van Wagoner ends the book with the story of a former polygamous wife who has broken away from her previous life by using her own head to think rather to rely on others–particularly those in a supposedly authoritative position.
“This is a hard-hitting factual narrative. The author leaves no doubt that the practice, even at its best, was difficult.”
— Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
from the publisher:
In this comprehensive survey of Mormon polygamy, Richard Van Wagoner details, with precision and detachment, the tumultuous reaction among insiders and outsiders to plural marriage. In an honest, methodical way, he traces the origins, the peculiarities common to the Midwestern and later Utah periods, and post-1890 new marriages. Drawing heavily on first-hand accounts, he outlines the theological underpinnings and the personal trauma associated with this lifestyle.
What emerges is a portrait that neither discounts nor exaggerates the historical evidence. He presents polygamy in context, neither condemning nor defending, while relevant contemporary accounts are treated sympathetically but interpreted critically. No period of Mormon history is emphasized over another. The result is a systematic view that is unavailable in studies of isolated periods or in the repetitions of folklore that only disguise the reality of what polygamy was.
Scattered throughout the western United States today are an estimated 30,000 fundamentalist Mormons who still live “the principle.” They too are a part of Joseph Smith’s legacy and are included in this study.
Hardy’s book on the subject should not be missed.