These Scholars Will Make You Think about Polygamy

Historians Brian and Laura Hales reflect on their years of polygamy research and talk about their latest projects.

Historians Brian and Laura Hales reflect on their years spent researching polygamy and plural marriage, and talk about their latest projects.

I often listen to the Latter-day Saint Perspectives podcast. How did the it get started—and which interviews have affected you the most?

Laura Harris Hales: Thanks, Kurt. The show’s success continues to amaze me. Entering this project, I had limited goals and never would have guessed that it would be downloaded in hundreds of countries, millions of times. As it turns out, many members have the same types of questions I have about Latter-day Saint history and doctrine.

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.

Each interview became intensely personal as I prepared, recorded, and edited the audio, but three that were particularly impactful include:

  • Episode 90: Part 1: W. W. Phelps and Early Mormonism and Episode 91: Part 2 with Bruce Van Orden. W. W. Phelps was a fly on the wall for most of the early events in Church history, and his views helped me fill in a lot of gaps and correct misconceptions.
  • A second podcast is Shon Hopkin’s Episode 94: Day of Atonement Symbolism in LDS Discourse. During our discussion, I learned about the subtle symbolism of Church rituals that I had participated in for decades.
  • And last, in Episode 128: What Is the Restoration? Patrick Mason helped explain concepts that had always befuddled me.

There are many Church history topics. What draws you to polygamy?

Brian Hales: In 1989, a family member joined a modern polygamy group and invited me to investigate their teachings. I soon realized that beyond a few highly-biased fundamentalist publications, no well-researched history of the movement existed. After writing that history, I realized that many of the questions I encountered dealt with Joseph Smith’s introduction of plural marriage.

In 2007, I hired Don Bradley to do the research and I finished a three-volume treatise in 2013. I married Laura later that year and teased her that she had married into polygamy . . . research that is.

Laura, you’ve been doing a lot of research on Helen Mar Kimball. What is it about her story that fascinates you?

Laura Harris Hales: 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.

What are some of the key events in the 20th century that paused discussions on plural marriage and ultimately led to the topic being included in the Gospel Topics Essays?

Brian Hales: The President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ceased authorizing new plural marriages in 1904. By the 1920s, dissidents sought to perpetuate polygamy through several different claims to secret authority. Rogue polygamists grew to the thousands by the 1930s and 1940s and, on occasion, garnered national media attention.

Historians Lisa Olsen Tate and Matthew J. Grow talk about polygamy in the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This policy within the Church persisted throughout the rest of the twentieth century. As a result, many members were poorly informed when the internet created a new venue for the spread of information, both accurate and sensationalized, in the 2000s.

Seeking to gain control of the conversation, Church leaders commissioned the Gospel Topic Essays dealing with polygamy, which were published in 2013.

What role did you play in the creation of the Gospel Topics Essay on polygamy? Do you think the essay may be revisited at some point?

Brian Hales: After starting my specific research on Joseph Smith and plural marriage in 2007, I often met with Church historians to request permission for access to specific documents, which was always granted. I also shared with them my ongoing research. As the Gospel Topic Essay on Joseph Smith and polygamy was being written, I shared my findings with the primary authors, but I was not involved with any of the essay’s actual composition. About six months before posting the essay, I was asked to review a draft. I made a number of minor suggestions, which were generally accepted. Overall, the final version reads very similar to the one I had reviewed.

Regarding the possibility of rewriting the Gospel Topic Essay, I personally don’t see a need. The current version has at least one paragraph discussing each of the primary historical issues and no evidences have been discovered since it was published that would alter the conclusions.

I would add that 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.

I believe that historical transparency on this subject has been largely achieved.

How might Utah polygamy have played out differently if Joseph Smith hadn’t died in 1844?

Brian Hales: It appears Joseph Smith anticipated the need to migrate to the Rocky Mountains before plural marriage was known to more than a few dozen devout Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo. He told one plural wife that eventually they would move to the West and then she would be openly acknowledged as his wife.

Born in 1805, Joseph could have lived into the twentieth century and led the Church through the tumultuous attacks of the 1880s. Would he have led differently than Brigham Young, John Taylor, or Wilford Woodruff?

There is no easy answer.

What is polygamy’s most important unanswered question?

Brian Hales: In my experience, the question that most often comes up deals with why God would institute polygamy among the Latter-day Saints at a time when they were already enduring significant persecution. Joseph Smith reported that an angel came in 1834 and again in 1842 commanding him to introduce and to practice plurality. Yet, through all the references to plural marriage by him and other Church leaders, no reasons explaining why it was then required have been given.

We can speculate, but whatever the potential advantages might be, it seems that the cost-benefit ratio would be rather steep.

What issue today most closely resembles polygamy in the ways it requires faith, goes against prevailing sentiments, and divides even Church members?

Laura Harris Hales: People are often draw parallels between policies that have changed in the past to current issues, and I personally don’t see a sufficient connection between them to make them useful. Much of what we do in the church requires faith and goes against prevailing sentiments.

In her masterful, A House Full of Females, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich beckons readers to resist the temptation to look at polygamy in isolation. When we study the practice within the complete social context of the Restoration, we begin to realize that it was only one of many heart-wrenching trials endured by the early Saints.

How can we honor woman’s history by changing the way that we talk about polygamy?

Laura Harris Hales: 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.

How can—and should—we influence the next generation of Latter-day Saints to talk about polygamy?

Laura Harris Hales and Brian Hales: In addition to giving voices to silences, we need to generally be more transparent and less defensive. This is especially true in regard to defenses of sealings to young brides or Joseph Smith’s methods used to introduce polygamy in Nauvoo.

Transparency in sharing historical accounts will likely result in different interpretations, but it also reveals that zealous religiosity of participants who believed polygamy was a religious practice commanded by God.

How do you think Brittany Chapman Nash’s book, Let’s Talk about Polygamy, might affect conversations among members of the Church without much exposure to the topic?

Laura Harris Hales: 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 ignored 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.

Further reading

Latter-day Saint polygamy resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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