The place of plural marriage in the early history of the Mormon church has been an important topic of analysis for historians since it first appeared in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s. It has also been one of the most contentious issues in Mormon history. Assignment of responsibility for the origination of the doctrine, with all of its overtones of sexual impropriety, has been hotly contested. When Fawn M. Brodie published her path-breaking biography of Joseph Smith in 1945, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, Mormon Prophet (Knopf, 1945, rev. ed. 1971), she characterized the origin of polygamy as sexual licentiousness manifested as religious piety. This set off other historians of Mormonism and they have been debating it ever since.
For instance, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ), the second largest of the Mormon factions and my original place of faith, officially denied until the 1980s that Joseph Smith Jr., Mormonism’s founder, had originated the practice. Instead, it had been the innovation of Brigham Young and his lieutenants, and was evidence of their apostasy. Brodie’s arguments, therefore, really set off adherents to the church.
Indeed, historian Robert B. Flanders was virtually shunned from the Reorganized Church after his book, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (Illinois, 1965), appeared because his research showed that polygamy’s origins laid firmly at the feet of Joseph Smith. This only began to change in a fundamental way after the 1983 publication of an article by Reorganized Church Historian Richard P. Howard that viewed plural marriage as something that arose in Nauvoo as an historical accident which grew like topsy near and immediately after the death of Joseph Smith Jr. As misguided as this interpretation was because of its conservatism and inability to deal with a raft of Smith’s earlier indiscretions, it opened the door for the acceptance of more critical appraisals.
Latter-day Saint historians never denied Smith’s responsibility for originating plural marriage but tried to explain his sexual antics as religious in origin. Hugh Nibley, in one of the first responses written to counter the arguments in Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith, (No Ma’am, That’s Not History, Bookcraft, 1946), defends all of the prophet’s actions as noble in character. He then comments, in one of the most asinine statements ever written about Mormon history, that Smith’s “teachings are so well-knit and perfectly logical that they have never had to undergo the slightest change or alteration during a century in which every other church in Christendom has continually revamped its doctrines.” Nibley must have somehow forgotten that the church was forced by the federal government officially to abandon the practice of plural marriage in 1890 despite its supposedly eternal nature as a doctrine of God.
Other Mormon historians have also emphasized the pious dimension of the development of plural marriage, in the process downplaying the sexual aspects of the doctrine. Biographies of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff, all prolific polygamists, describe the practice’s burden and implicitly argue that they took additional wives not because of any drive of the libido but because of their commitment to the Mormon religion.
Mormon and historian Marvin Hill explicitly took on Fawn Brodie’s sexual misconduct explanation for plural marriage and concluded that it was probably the result of Smith’s own seriousness about his prophetic role. Hill wrote in “Secular or Sectarian History? A Critique of ‘No Man Knows My History’,” Church History 43 (March 1974): 78-96, that “Brodie failed to appreciate the degree to which the prophetic role liberated Smith from the social restraints which customarily control sexual behavior.” He noted that Smith was not charged with any sexual misconduct until 1832, well after his emergence as a prophetic leader, and that if he was such a libertine, it should have been present in the 1820s. Hill also comments that Smith seems to have been greatly influenced in his thinking about plural marriage by his reading of the Old Testament, providing “further proof of Smith’s early and complete absorption in his prophetic role.” Smith also, according to Hill, did not have sexual relations with many of his wives, again parrying the sexual drive as the reason for the practice. In all, according to Hill, Smith emerges as a more authentic and legitimate religious leader than Brodie makes him out to be. While Marvin Hill is overall a fine historian, in this instance his reason was obliterated by his faith.
It is this desire for an answer to Brodie’s charges of Smith’s sexual misconduct and illegitimacy that helps explain the great acceptance of non-Mormon historian Lawrence Foster’s collective studies of sexual practices among the Mormons, the Shakers, and the Oneida Perfectionists. A very fine work, in Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1981), Foster explores experimentation in the marriage relationship that took place in a broad spectrum of antebellum America. He interpreted Joseph Smith as only one of several highly creative and restless souls who were seeking a more perfect relationship of individuals. He was not, therefore, the licentious womanizer that Brodie made of him. He also was not, and this seems to have been largely missed by most Mormons who embraced Foster’s work, the prophet of the living God who restored the true gospel in its ancient purity to the Earth.
One aspect of the effort to clothe the origins of plural marriage in religious reverence resulted in specifically trying to push the date of the revelation on the subject back to 1831. Brodie had pointed out the inconsistency in the official date of the recording of the revelation of plural marriage, Section 132 in the Latter-day Saints Doctrine and Covenants, of July 12, 1843, with the de facto practice of plural marriage from at least 1836.
Using an 1861 recollection of W. W. Phelps, at best a questionable source since polygamy had been firmly established in Utah by then and it was under attack both by the federal government and the Reorganized Church as an illegitimate institution, historian Danel W. Bachman made a case in “New Light on an Old Hypothesis: The Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage,” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 19-31, that on July 17, 1831, Smith had told five followers in a revelation in Jackson County, Missouri, “It is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and just.” Phelps asked Joseph Smith later how this could be since the men to whom the revelation was given already had wives. Smith had told him that it would be done as it was in the Old Testament with Abraham and Jacob, “by Revelation.” Accordingly, if one accepts this argument, the practice was commanded as early as 1831 and put into place at least by 1836, with the formal recording of an earlier revelation completing the process or enacting plural marriage only in 1843.
The efforts to explore Mormon plural marriage practices have led to some valuable observations. But, as in other instances, the either/or nature framing Brodie’s arguments on the subject have prompted Mormon historians to take limiting approaches. The comparative approach of Lawrence Foster has been illuminating, for instance, but I would suggest that without his approaching it as a non-Mormon with multi-religious interests, it never would have evolved as usefully as it did.
Additionally, studies of plural marriage on its own terms, without moral judgments as to sexual deviance of those involved, have been stunted. And a whole raft of questions never suggested by Brodie await exploration. For instance, the whole gender issue and its relationship in plural marriage is ripe for exploration. Also, what role did plural marriage play in efforts by insecure males to secure traditional gender roles in a society in flux in Jacksonian America? Did the all male priesthood headed by Joseph Smith embrace these practices because of status anxiety? Historian Mark C. Carnes has argued that Victorian males desired to restore order and to resecure the patriarchal authority lost in the Industrial Revolution and its attendant social upheavals. Could plural marriage have been a part of this effort? Joseph Smith’s preoccupation with Old Testament images, especially those associated with the biblical patriarchs, and the elaborate rites of plural marriage and other temple concepts share linkages to actions taking place in broader American society. Could similar concerns for status and security have prompted the development of plural marriage as a religious rite? We await future studies that will develop these and other issues.