Wednesday’s Book Review: “Nauvoo Polygamy: ‘but we called it celestial marriage'”

Nauvoo Polygamy: “but we called it celestial marriage.” By George D. Smith. Signature Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2008. Introduction, photographs, appendices, footnotes, bibliography, index. ix + 705 pp. ISBN: 978-1-56085-201-8. Hardcover with dustjacket. $39.95.

Plural marriage, or polygamy, among the Mormons has long been one of the most controversial and fascinating subjects in the history of the American religion. During the Nauvoo, Illinois, sojourn of the Mormons between 1839 and 1846 the practice of marrying more than one wife grew as a tenet of the faith and Joseph Smith Jr., founder and prophet of this religious group, initiated several of his closest associates into the “Principle,” telling them that it was demanded of God for his chosen people. This book by George D. Smith, long a student of Mormon polygamy and the dominant force behind Signature Books as an alternative publisher of Mormon history from that offered by the church’s official press, offers the most detailed and sophisticated analysis of polygamy’s origins and practice during the life of the prophet.

Gossip about the practice of polygamy had swirled about Mormonism since the early 1830s—an 1835 General Conference had even adopted a resolution explicitly denying the charge—but the practice emerged full-blown in Nauvoo during the early 1840s. According to faithful Mormon accounts Joseph Smith had begun it only because it was the will of God. A commandment to that effect had come as early as 1831 and Smith had practiced polygamy in fits and starts over the years, but he expanded it secretly in Nauvoo.

A formal revelation commanding this practice came in 1843, but it was still not well known even among the faithful until after his assassination in 1844. His first plural marriage in Nauvoo was to Louisa Beaman on April 5, 1841, and by the time of Smith’s death the best evidence suggests that he had married some 33 different women. Some of these were young teenagers, most of whom he had met while they had been servants in his home. He also pressed other confidents to take additional wives, some of whom were already married to other men. Through all of this rumors swirled and Smith consistently denied them. When resistance to these actions arose in the church and dissenters accused him of reprehensible actions—including internal dissenters such as the upright William Law—they were defamed as “persecutors,” “false swearers,” and “wolves” whose charges were “of the devil.”

For those accepting plural marriage this practice was about extending familial ties into eternity, achieving eventually the status of godhood in the “celestial kingdom.” The complex theology justifying this emerged over time, but it was built on a set of assumption about gender relations, priesthood, hierarchies of power, and both subservience and surrender to church authorities on the part of those entering the “Principle.” The critical aspect of this is the necessary linkage of women to men. The faithful wife, or more likely wives, had gifts and promises and blessing with the husband, but not in her own right, and this helped ensure her subservience.

These themes of subservience and surrender are brought to the fore in this book by George D. Smith. The men who engaged in polygamy signaled their surrender and subservience to Joseph Smith, although they would have said they signaled it to God, by agreeing to alter their lifestyles in ways that forever set them apart from the American mainstream. The women who entered the “Principle” also sacrificed their desires and dreams on the altar of plural marriage to serve their husband and family. Accepting plural marriage required a remarkable alteration of societal norms. It ensured that as long as the individual desired maintaining a relationship to the family, he or she also had to remain true to the Latter-day Saint church as the only place where the practice of polygamy would be tolerated.

This domination of the lives of believers in such a fundamental manner led to abuses and a series of scandals in Nauvoo. George Smith delights in relating these issues. First, there is the seduction of married women who were induced to leave their legal husbands, usually without a divorce, and sometimes their children to take up with some Mormon priesthood member in plural marriage. Second, and more nefarious, was the pursuit of teenagers and their inducement to enter plural marriage with much older Mormon priesthood. Prurient interests, as George Smith makes clear, drove much of this effort. That is not to say that those engaged in plural marriage were motivated solely by lust. The vast majority seemed to believe they were engaged in carrying out God’s will.

The story that George Smith tells here, with its emphasis on subservience and surrender, seduction and priestly hierarchies is one that makes modern Mormons uncomfortable. Although the church practiced polygamy openly in Utah until 1890, abandoning it only as part of an agreement with federal officials, some believers in the mission of Joseph Smith Jr. continue to practice polygamy to the present. The last part of Nauvoo Polygamy details the debate over the nature and meaning of polygamy in Mormon history and how it has been dealt with, or more likely not dealt with, by the church’s current membership. George Smith titles one of his chapters discussing this subject “A Silenced Past” and excoriates the church hierarchy: “Instead of evaluating a difficult past in order not to repeat it, the church leadership tried to separate its troubles from their apparent causes” (p. 442).

Understanding these myths, how they arose, why they have salience, and how they have affected the people being studied is critical to furthering understanding about Nauvoo and the church’s experience there. George Smith found little of this in the recounting of the official church response to Nauvoo polygamy. Indeed, Smith concludes, “The thirteen-million-strong mainstream LDS Church tries to suppress the memory of a half century of polygamy” (p. 550). While Smith is essentially speaking to the Mormon membership in Nauvoo Polygamy his desire to tell this story is also appropriate for non-Mormons interested in the history of Illinois and his study makes an important contribution that will be valuable to all seeking fuller understanding of the Mormon experience in Nauvoo.

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