Let’s Talk about Polygamy with Brittany Chapman Nash

Sponsored by BYU Studies — Historian Brittany Chapman Nash is the author of a groundbreaking new book, Let’s Talk About Polygamy (Deseret Book, 2021).

Introduce Let’s Talk about Polygamy and explain how you became involved with the series.

Two weeks before I gave birth to my firstborn son, I gave a presentation about polygamy to a stake in the Salt Lake area. Around that time, Deseret Book began planning a new Let’s Talk About… series to address a variety of topics important to Latter-day Saints. The practice of plural marriage was one of the first subjects they wanted to address.

Unbeknownst to me, someone who was involved in selecting authors for the series was in attendance at my presentation. My name was suggested as a potential author for the book about polygamy and, three weeks after my son was born, I was asked to write the book. I feel honored to have been trusted with the topic of polygamy.

How did you initially feel when beginning your study of polygamy? What changed?

I began my study of polygamy as a master’s student at the University of Leicester. I was focusing my thesis around the life of my great-great grandmother Ruth May Fox, featuring her as a “representative Mormon woman.” She was the first wife in a polygamous union, so I dove headfirst into researching the history of Latter-day Saint polygamy.

I was initially confused and disturbed as I began navigating this foreign view of Church history that did not fit the tidy paradigm I had curated from Sunday School and Institute classes.

History was messy! It didn’t make sense! I wasn’t ready to accept that the Church was built by people, not two-dimensional superheroes. If I had not been FORCED to continue studying polygamy because of my thesis topic, I probably would have stopped learning about polygamy as soon as my paradigm started trembling and, subsequently, would have retained feelings of discomfort, distrust, and confusion about the subject.

I think I experienced the whole “five stages of grief” as I explored this topic. I am certain I would have remained in the “anger” phase if I had not been pushed to dig more deeply into people’s stories and women’s relationships.

For me, reading their experiences and testimonies led to my own reconciliation with polygamy.

Why is there a lack of polygamy documentation in Nauvoo—and what does it prevent us from knowing?

The select group of Saints in Nauvoo who practiced plural marriage considered it to be both secret and sacred. They were keenly aware that polygamy was a potentially explosive issue and mainstream knowledge of the practice would negatively affect the future of the Church and the already-fragile relationships with the Saints’ neighbors.

So, to keep polygamy secret and sacred, participants rarely recorded anything about it.

Lack of contemporary, written-at-the-moment records prevent us from tracking how the theology and practice of polygamy developed; learning additional information about Joseph Smith’s teachings on the practice including, perhaps, additional doctrinal details; how people wrestled with the principle in the moment; Emma’s experience of and feelings about plural marriage, among many other things.

Most records we have of Nauvoo polygamy were written as reminiscences decades later, after polygamy was a public, well-established, and widely-practiced principle among Latter-day Saints.

How many wives did Joseph Smith have and what were their age ranges?

Most scholars agree that Joseph Smith had between 30 and 40 wives. The youngest woman that Joseph married was fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball and the eldest was fifty-eight-year-old Rhoda Richards.

Why did Joseph Smith and others sometimes deny they had multiple wives?

The volatile social climate of the time made polygamous Saints feel it was too dangerous to divulge their practice of the principle. Therefore, they took “mincing words” to a new level to conceal the practice. Practitioners had a redefined understanding of marriage and considered plural marriages different in nature than civil marriages. Therefore, because polygamous men claimed no legal wives aside from their first, some felt justified in saying they had only one wife.

Others denied practicing polygamy in the sense associated with the harems in Asia and the Middle East.

Did Joseph Smith’s plural marriages involve physical intimacy?

Some of them did; two of his plural wives testified under oath that their marriages included sexual relations. Some of Joseph Smith’s other sealings, however, almost certainly did not include physical intimacy.

The latest thinking about Smith’s marriages differentiate them between “eternity only” marriages and marriages for “time and eternity.” Marriages for eternity only likely did not include physical intimacy (Joseph’s marriage to Helen Mar Kimball is suggested to be among these).

Marriages for time and eternity may have included intimacy. We have records from only a few of the wives indicating whether they were married for time and eternity or for eternity alone.

Records do not exist for the majority of Joseph Smith’s wives as to whether they were married for time and eternity or for eternity only.

What was the Latter-day Saint Reformation and how did it lead to abuses in polygamy?

The Latter-day Saint Reformation occurred between 1856 and 1857 and was a time of widespread religious revival. Church leaders preached fiery sermons urging repentance and recommitment, and inspired a movement that some described as “more fanaticism than Mormonism.”

Pressure was placed upon men and women to marry plurally in a way never replicated before or since. Thus, the highest number of plural marriages occurred during this time. In the Saints’ enthusiasm, some untrue folk teachings seeped into local practices.

For example, some believed that young women needed to marry someone “tried and true” (i.e. an older man who had proven himself faithful to the gospel, as opposed to a young man who had not yet proven his long-term religious commitment) and should accept the proposal from the first “tried and true” male that came her way.

This was a disastrous approach, but, regardless, some members felt internal pressure and external pressure by parents and fellow Church members to marry this way. Incidentally, the greatest number of divorces between polygamous couples came from marriages made during the Reformation.

This period of less than a year reinforced some of the stereotypes that endure to this day, that of very young women marrying older men, and does not reflect the experience of most polygamous families.

Why was polygamy practiced after the 1890 Manifesto?

People had a hard time letting go of polygamy. It was one of the principles that defined Latter-day Saints as a people; the world opposed polygamy and the Saints banded together against the world. The rising generation grew up in communities where polygamy was normal and some young people wanted to create their own plural families and anticipated doing so even before marrying.

Plural marriage was seen as a commandment of God to be lived in their time. Could a commandment come to an end so abruptly?

Plural marriage was still understood by some to be a higher form of marriage and that those who practiced polygamy were entitled to additional eternal blessings. Letting go of that possibility was difficult for the rising generation.

The Manifesto urged members to live according to the laws of the land, referring, essentially, to the United States. Some members wondered if the 1890 Manifesto was only temporary. The Saints had created polygamous satellite communities in Mexico and Canada in the 1880s, and so some Saints who married post-Manifesto travelled out of the United States and were married in Mexico or Canada or even on the seas.

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I found myself experiencing emotional whiplash as you rotated between quotes from those who loved and hated polygamy. Is that intentional?

Haha…what was intentional was my desire to represent the reality that every participant had a different experience of the practice. It is easy to stereotype polygamy as good or bad, or assume that either everyone loved it or everyone hated it all of the time.

The reality was different for every individual. I do think that more than a few people also experienced emotional whiplash in their personal relationship with polygamy—it was common to wrestle with positive and negative feelings.

What was the verbiage for the plural marriage ceremony?

In his periodical The Seer, Orson Pratt did history a great favor by publishing the entire plural sealing ceremony word-for-word, including descriptions of the actions taken by the first wife, groom, and plural-wife-to-be during the marriage (all much to Brigham Young’s chagrin).

And yes, the first wife does participate in the sealing ceremony!

Agency is a focal point in the ordinance, as the first wife, groom, and bride are each asked in turn if the marriage is of their “own free will and choice.” The first wife is asked that question first, and, if she answers affirmatively, she places the right hand of the bride into the right hand of her husband and the rite proceeds from there.

The details of the covenants and blessings are too many to include here, but I encourage everyone to read pages 31-32 of the February 1853 edition of The Seer.

Is polygamy essential for exaltation?

No. The sealing ordinance uniting husband and wife is essential for exaltation. Whether that sealing is monogamous or polygamous, the promised blessings are the same.

How can we gain strength from our polygamous past?

By talking about it! We shape our perception of polygamy by how we frame those who practiced it.

There are many aspects of polygamy that are uncomfortable and concerning to us, particularly because of our own time and sensitivities. But, there is much of compassion, respect, forgiveness, and faith that we can learn from the human beings who willingly entered this challenging practice because they believed God commanded it.

We can share the stories of polygamous Saints; their courage and faith to do difficult things and make sacrifices for the gospels’ sake can strengthen our own resolve to be committed to gospel principles. They were consecrated covenant keepers and kingdom builders.

We can be, too.

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