Polygamy “not popular” among Mormon pioneers, says new book

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9780199346509What was life like for regular Mormon women in polygamy? Could you call these pioneering women “feminists”? Was it harder to be a first wife or a later wife?

These were some of the questions I had after reading one of this year’s most interesting Mormon books, The Polygamous Wives Writing Club. Paula Kelly Harline takes an in-depth look at the diaries and writings of more than two dozen ordinary plural wives from the 19th century.

And oh, what a hard road. Modern readers whose ideas of polygamous life come primarily from TV shows like Big Love or Sister Wives will recognize some recurring themes in actual history (hello, jealousy!) but be surprised by others, like grinding poverty or the lack of visible affection among the “sister” wives in these real-life accounts. Not a lot of love lost there, in some cases.  — JKR

RNS: What misconceptions do Mormons have today about nineteenth-century polygamy?

Paula Kelly Harline: I think the biggest misconception might be that Mormons were distraught over the 1890 Manifesto that officially discontinued polygamy.

From 1852 when polygamy was first publicly encouraged, the practice was not popular among rank-and-file Mormons. By the late 1880s, a schism had likely developed between those who practiced polygamy and those who did not, and the percentage of Mormons who practiced it was growing smaller.

Those who were practicing it, such as the 29 polygamous wives I studied, did not uniformly defend the practice in their writings or complain about the Manifesto. Of the 13 women who lived during this time period, 11 did not mention the Manifesto in their writings, suggesting that a) they were apathetic about it, b) they considered the demise of polygamy inevitable, or c) the Manifesto didn’t affect them.

RNS: What did you gain by focusing on the writings of ordinary women that few people have heard of, rather than the “leading women” of Mormonism from this time period?

PKH: When gathering sources, I eliminated women who were married to Salt Lake general authorities or who were Church leaders themselves because they are better known—some of them were early feminists and were more polemical, political, or doctrinal about polygamy than ordinary women were. As I got to know ordinary women through their writings, their feelings seemed so human to me, and I wanted to rescue them from obscurity, I guess you could say. My heart went out to them.

Paula Kelly Harline, author of "The Polygamous Wives Writing Club"

Paula Kelly Harline, author of “The Polygamous Wives Writing Club”

RNS: What finding surprised you most in your research?

PKH: Initially I was curious to know if ordinary polygamous wives were feminists like some “leading women” were, and as I studied ordinary wives’ autobiographies and diaries, I looked for evidence of shared childcare, increased employment opportunity, independence from husbands, and sisterhood.

I found some extraordinary examples of these, but I mostly found that late nineteenth-century Mormon polygamous wives had pervasive assumptions about romantic love (like other American women at the time), and they were much more interested in their relationships with their husbands than with their “sister wives.”

In fact, except in one case out of 29, they did not call their husbands’ other wives “sister wives.”

RNS: In general, who had the harder lot: first wives or later wives? Why?

PKH: One first wife, Lydia Brinkerhoff, wrote that she tried to be a mother and a sister to the young wife, but that it nearly killed her to watch the girl leave with, as she put it, “my husband.” As her story continued, though, Lydia seemed to remain the wise head of the family.

In an another example, first wife Angelina Farley was agitated in her diary because her husband didn’t sleep with her for months after marrying a younger wife, and as the three were living in the same house and sharing things like coffee and garden hoes, Angelina had many complaints and frustrations that she often voiced. Older wives usually felt a loss, even if only expressed privately.

Second and third wives generally felt special at first because they were the new wife, but they usually quickly learned that they couldn’t regard themselves as a monogamous wife could. The husbands seemed torn a lot of the time, too, trying to be fair and make their families happy. Most wives eventually replaced their close relationships with their husbands with close relationships with their children, which, in retrospect, fulfilled the Mormons’ goal of raising righteous children who would carry on the faith.


  • ORV

    Interesting, but it doesn’t reaslly matter if polygamy was “popular” or not. It wasn’t supposed to win a popularity contest. It was God’s will for his church at that time.

  • Windjammer

    My ancestor was the 4th and youngest wife of a prominent citizen in Southern Utah. While her husband (30 years her senior) and his three other wives lived in a lovely home in town, my ancestor lived in a wagon box for a year while she and her children homesteaded the Beaver Dam Wash. Hannah and her six children worked the homestead planting the orchards, gardens and crops, building the dams to irrigate their land, and tending the cattle, horses and poultry. They were essentially alone with her husband visiting only occasionally. When my ancestor’s sixth and last child was born, her husband asked what the child’s name should be. Without hesitation, my ancestor replied, “Exile.”

  • JN

    Your comment reminds me of the old notion that we as Mormons always go against popularity and that if something isn’t popular it somehow further proves that we are right or that something is God’s will. I don’t believe polygamy was God’s will at the time, but more a result of man running the church. It is interesting and informative to know of how practicing polygamists actually felt as opposed to how we think they felt. I do think it matters that it was unpopular. The Church often changes due to popularity, especially when society evolves enough that the Church can’t pretend they are in the right anymore, take polygamy and blacks and the priesthood for instance.

  • If God commands something, it doesn’t matter how anyone feels about doing it. Bringham Young, the second prophet of the Mormon religion, said anyone who didn’t practice polygamy would be damned (see quotes below). Now, a true prophet of God, speaks for God. So this doctrine of polygamy being changed reveals a God who changes His mind, though the Scriptures tell us that God doesn’t change, He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

    Brigham Young said you are damned if you deny polygamy.
    “Now if any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, p. 266). Also, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, p. 269).


  • Edy Meredith

    On my mother’s side, my great grandmother was the 2nd wife. She, her children, and the 3rd wife started a dairy farm on the shores of Utah Lake, often pulling the plow themselves to clear the land. Once it was thriving, the profit was used to support the first family in town. My grandfather was never allowed to go to school because as the oldest son, he took the younger children to school and then had to return to the farm to do all the chores. He became a contractor. He also developed dementia/altheimers in his 60’s, and I have often wondered if it was because of the deprivation of his life because as far as I know no one else in the family has developed it. The killer is that after the farm was doing well, the patriach (George Thomas Peay) and his first wife, co-signed a note on the farm to secure a loan for a friend. When the friend defaulted, my great grandmother (2nd wife), her children, the 3rd wife and her children were kicked off the farm. My greatgrandmother lived in a 5 feet by 6 feet cabin. In the winter the water would come up into the cabin. My mother used to brag that at the time of his death, the Patriarch came to my nearly dead greatgrandmother. For forgiveness ?

  • trytoseeitmyway

    If God’s constancy really meant that there could and would never be any new or different commandments, then “don’t eat of the fruit of that tree” would be the only commandment on the books.

  • EngineerSenseHere

    I have three ancestors that had two wives. Their journals and information don’t sound anything like what the author of either the book or article are saying. It sounds like another example of cherry picking information (usually with and anti-Mormon slant).

    Yes, it was somewhat hard for the wives (my great-great grandmothers) both the first and second early in the marriage. But they certainly learned to work it out and then came to love their whole family. My ancestor who was the first wife described that it wasn’t a decision made just by the husband, both the husband and first wife agreed on who would be added to the family.

    Also there is a huge difference between righteous polygamous families back then who followed the prophets counsel, vs rebellious “fundamentalists” now who practice polygamy without regard to God’s commandments.

  • EngineerSenseHere

    Why do you call yourself a Mormon, when you are blatantly anti-Mormon? Don’t try to pretend you somehow represent our views when you openly declare you beliefs that the LDS church is run by man not God.

    I don’t have a problem with people against the church, just people pretending to be something they are not.

  • Windjammer

    Wives eventually replacing close relationships with children rather than their husbands rings true in my family history. My ancestor was the third wife of a man 15 years her senior. Her husband’s first two wives left him to live with their children, leaving my ancestor alone to care for him in his old age.

  • Fred M

    I would hardly call JN “blatantly anti-Mormon.” You can still believe that God directs this church while also believing that the person running the church here on earth is fallible and can make mistakes. In fact, if you don’t believe that you are flying in the face of official church doctrine.

    The church’s recent essay on “Race and the Priesthood” makes it even more clear that sometimes prophets can be wrong. They can even teach false doctrines which are now officially disavowed (check out the First Presidency’s 1949 official statement on the “Negro Question”).

    As Latter-Day-Saints, we believe God is perfect. We believe Jesus Christ is perfect. We sustain our leaders. But do we think they’re perfect and incapable of mistakes? Of course not. That would be blasphemy.

  • EngineerSenseHere

    You may be right, blatantly anti-Mormon might be a little too strong. However, the attitude of that comment is definitely not one of a faithful LDS member.

    Also, while I agree that the prophet is not perfect and can make mistakes, when he speaks for the Lord to direct the church, the Lord will not allow him to lead the church astray. That is the doctrine.

    God is always right, very rarely an apostle says something (his opinion) that conflicts with the views of the church. However, I know of no cases where any official position of the church has been wrong or ever declared wrong by later church leaders (and just because a position has changed does not mean the previous position was wrong, i.e. polygamy, priesthood, etc).

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    I agree. Mormon prophets can be wrong.

    They were wrong about Blacks, racism, birth control, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and women praying in church.

    They continue being wrong about Gays, feminists, tithing (as a requirement), sleeveless shirts, coffee, and tea.

    And, of course, they are absolutely wrong about the need for anyone to sustain them as God’s representatives on earth. Lord knows, the men who lead the LDS Church have no special communion with the Divine.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    That’s an interesting alternate reality. However, intelligent people are bound to say that Young’s deplorable behavior means he was never a true prophet of God *in* *the* *first* *place,* and since Thomas S. Monson gets his authority through a chain that includes Young (and since Young was clearly a false prophet, based on his behavior) Mr. Monson hasn’t any authority, either.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    It is interesting that the Book of Mormon describes plural wives as an “abomination” (see Jacob, chapter 2, verse 24). When faced with this stark reality, Mormon apologists have argued that the one exception is when God wishes to “raise up seed” (see Jacob 2, verse 30).

    However, recent work by scientists has shown that plural marriage resulted in *fewer* children (on average) per married woman, not more. So from a practical point of view, with the aim of “raising up seed,” plural marriage is an ineffective strategy.


    One can argue in circles (and the apologists often do) but the simplest explanation is probably the best. Plural marriage evolved out of an excuse that Joseph Smith invented when he was caught in adultery. It has nothing to do with God.

  • EngineerSenseHere

    Normally, I don’t waste my time discussing with people who clearly have their mind made up against the LDS church. But your comment was so mathematically incorrect I couldn’t pass it up.

    4 is bigger than 3, but 3+3 is bigger than 4. (i.e., even if polygamous wives have less kids, you still end up with more kids total).

    And you should reread Jacob and then read Genesis to understand what that scripture means (Israel and Abraham both had multiple wives without being condemned).

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    EngineerSenseHere wrote: “…even if polygamous wives have less kids, you still end up with more kids total.”

    Not true. The researchers showed that those polygamous wives had fewer kids (on average) than if they’d been in monogamous marriages. That is, had the Mormons practiced strict monogamy, the Mormon community would have produced more kids than they did under polygamy.

    You really should read the link to the paper that I provided.

    EngineerSenseHere wrote: “Normally, I don’t waste….”

    It’s been my experience that Mormons often accuse others of what they do. In your case, you have clearly made up *your* mind about Mormonism, and are incapable of entertaining any data that isn’t consistent with your fables and mythology.

    I can only say that I hope you’re not a *real* engineer — and if you are, that you aren’t designing anything that’s important!

  • Fred M

    The 1949 First Presidency official statement reads:

    “The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death.”

    “The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality…”

    The latest official church statement reads:

    “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else.”

    There. Now you know of a case where an official position of the church has been declared wrong by later church leaders.

  • EngineerSenseHere

    The flaw is based on your assumptions. If you assume that the plural wives would have been married either way, then yes, you would conclude that having multiple wives would reduce children.

    If you assume that the plural wives would not have been married except in plural marriage, then no, there would not be fewer children as the result of polygamy.

    Since, one of the main reasons for polygamy is that some women in the church could not find husbands (some of the men had been killed), and the only way they would be married to a worthy man was through polygamy.

    And I am a real engineer. I design medical devices that can save lives (or kill them if designed poorly). I’m sure that if you actually knew me (outside of a forum on religion), we would probably get along just fine. I know plenty of people who I disagree with religiously, but are good friends otherwise. On that note, have a great rest of the day. Take care.

  • Eric

    My great Aunt was one of 6 children from my great great grandfather’s 2nd wife. He served time in federal pen. for polygamy. She was born around 1890. She was raised in SLC. Her sentiments echoed this article. I had lots of discussions with her when I was in college and living in Utah. She said the younger polygamist kids were stigmatized, called names like polygs. It wasn’t very fun growing up as a polygamist child. Of course she was in a city. SLC, not in the country My grandfather left home at 14, not that uncommon then. Common sense says it had to be tough. In my opinion anyone who thinks it was rosy has a misconception. After the manifesto it had to have became tougher. But hey, I am here, and my wife of 41 years is a descendant from a subsequent wife, and my children and 16 grandchildren are here now. All faithfull saints. So if increasing the base was the purpose it worked! So you won’t hear me complaining.

  • obiwanbartobi

    Engineer your wrong again, there were more men than women in the early church. The earliest polygamist marriages were preformed before the trek to Utah. Check the census records,

  • obiwanbartobi

    Engineer your wrong again, there were more men than women in the early church. The earliest polygamist marriages were preformed before the trek to Utah. Check the census records.

  • Fred M

    Obiwan is right. This was used as a common justification for polygamy for years in the church (with no data to support it!), but it has since been disproven. There was no shortage of men in the church at the time.

  • Sandy

    The fundamental problem with that argument, Dave, is the premise upon which you base your argument. You state that a change in doctrine would reveal a changing God, and God cannot change, therefore a change in doctrine reveals a false belief. The argument is valid logic, yes. But let’s look at the premise–a change in doctrine reveals a changing God. This would work for you if you weren’t coming from a Christian position. But you are coming from a Christian position, and coming from a position where you are declaring authority based on the bible. Erm… Guess what? The bible has a fair amount of God-sanctioned polygamy in it. Your argument is valid, but the premise is either itself wrong, or you simultaneously discredit the Bible and all of Christianity with it along with Mormonism. If you were an atheist you would have scored yourself a point with a valid and coherent argument, but you are not and I am really confused at what you are trying to do. You cannot believe in that premise or you do not believe the Bible at all–you cannot pick and choose which verses to espouse and which ones to discard. In your faith you have to accept it all as the word of God and find out how to make it all work in harmony. Anything you can work out to harmonize the bible with itself will also harmonize the Mormon’s with their previous position on polygamy.

  • Edy Meredith

    You aren’t complaining because you didn’t actually go through it. But God says that he holds accountable to the 3rd & 4th generation. Perhaps your pride (an abomination before God) shows a very strong sin with possible terrible consequences. You will see in future generations.

  • Sandy

    Good grief, Obiwanbartobi, are you suggesting you have read the census records from that time and determined a) the religion of census respondents b) the polygamist status of the respondents and c) taken a large enough sample of a and b and calculated a difference between before and after trekking westwards and d) concluded more polygamist marriages existed before the trek?

    You did not. You are spouting BS and using artificial, wholly manufactured “facts” to support your point. The census records from that time did not include information on religion, for starters. (you asked us to check, and so I did). Yeah, we can figure out religion from various records, but not early census, which is what you are claiming to cite. You fail at step one of a credibility check so there is no need to even entertain the near impossible idea of you having gone through the rest of the steps too.

  • Sandy

    Fred, don’t pile on behind false assertions to argue Mormon’s historical relationships with polygamy. I am sure Obiwan and you both have read it somewhere, and an official-sounding reference like “census records” was all you two needed to be convinced you had both information and done your due-diligence. Newsflash–not everything in print is true and people lie about source material to try and make their arguments stronger. It is not hard to look up census records. It is even easier to look up what info was on census records for any given census. Engineersense did not provide any hard data to back up his claim, but he has the stronger claim because you guys did something worse–you referenced data that does not exist and discredited yourselves entirely. Never cite info without looking it up yourself first–especially if you feel it makes your argument stronger.

  • Sandy

    Wow, Edy. She is a sinner because of her ancestors, huh? And you believe that. I have always taken “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation…” to reference the common-sense truth that we can have a very real impact upon our children and future generations, but never have I thought and never would I believe that an otherwise innocent child is accountable for the sins of progenitors. You see it to mean an innocent infant would be full of filth and sin if the child’s parents had ever done anything abhorrent. That is some very, very, interesting interpretation going on there. When it so naturally reads to mean something much more kind that I can imagine coming from a loving God, I can only wonder why you would want it to mean that. You learn a whole lot more about people by how they interpret what they read than by the words they read themselves. I’ve learned something about you, for sure.

  • Sandy

    Let’s be fair about this and not hang all of Christianity with the same rope. By your logic a slew of old testament prophets were likewise not true prophets in the first place and the twelve tribes of Israel were the result of grave and deplorable sexual sin committed by a false prophet. Okay, so we don’t like it that Mormon’s practiced polygamy in their early history. It is not distant enough time-wise or geographically for us to be comfortable with it–and that is what this reaction of disgust is really all about.

  • Fred M


    Apostle John A. Widtsoe in his book Evidences and Reconciliations:

    “Plural marriage has been a subject of wide and frequent comment. Members of the Church unfamiliar with its history, and many non-members, have set up fallacious reasons for the origin of this system of marriage among the Latter-day Saints.
    “The most common of these conjectures is that the Church, through plural marriage, sought to provide husbands for its large surplus of female members. The implied assumption in this theory, that there have been more female than male members in the Church, is not supported by existing evidence. On the contrary, there seem always to have been more males than females in the Church…
    “The United States census records from 1850 to 1940, and all available Church records, uniformly show a preponderance of males in Utah, and in the Church. Indeed, the excess in Utah has usually been larger than for the whole United States, as would be expected in a pioneer state. The births within the Church obey the usual population law – a slight excess of males…
    “The theory that plural marriage was a consequence of a surplus of female Church members fails from lack of evidence…
    “Another conjecture is that the people were few in number and that the Church, desiring greater numbers, permitted the practice so that a phenomenal increase in population could be attained. This is not defensible, since there was no surplus of women…”

    Hopefully that helps. Unless you believe that Widtsoe was lying to make his argument stronger. Widtsoe’s ultimate conclusion? “The principle of plural marriage came by revelation from the Lord. That is why the Church practiced it.” So please, let’s dispense with false explanations like “there were more women than men.”

  • Edy Meredith

    You obviously don’t believe in original sin, but perhaps, correct me if I’m wrong, believe that each baby is born with a blank tablet. Read my words and the words of the Bible.

  • Edy Meredith

    You seem to believe in each child as a blank slate, rather than original sin helping to form personality and proclivities. Spend very much time around young children and you will find that they are very selfish…….a sin perhaps, sin probably.

  • Eric

    I am not complaining because I am alive. Neither did my great aunts and uncle complain because they were given their lives. They all lived fulfilling lives with no bitterness. The point of the article was that polygamy was not popular. There were hardships associated with it. But then there are hardships faced by almost every family. Also dementia is hereditary and evident in sometimes in comments.

  • Edy Meredith

    You are very funny…………accusing me of dimentia because you don’t like my comment. First dimentia is caused by 2 interacting factors–genes which you apparently are referring and epigenetic material that surrounds the genes and turns genes on and off. The epigenetic material is formed by experience. So nature and nurture work together. Yes, no one else in either side of the family has dimentia. None of us suffered under polygamy. My grandfather suffered terribly.and was denied an education because of polygamy’s demands. Yes, I am alive, but it is not because of polygamy. It is in spite of polygamy. Even the Book of Mormon prohibits polygamy. Good luck. Perhaps you show signs of dimentia in your forgetfulness about the reality of polygamy’s extreme sexual slavery of women and children.

  • Windjammer

    Eric – I enjoyed your comment very much and agree with you that the hardships were definitely there, (I wouldn’t have wanted to live that lifestyle), but like you, I am grateful for the legacies they left me. Both my mother’s father and mother were born into polygamist families, and from them I inherited legacies of courage, integrity, industry, perseverance and determination. Whether these qualities were a result of the polygamist lifestyle or not, I don’t know, but I admire them for making the most of a difficult and unusual way of life.

  • MWM

    EngineerSenseHere: BINGO.

    There may be a quibble as to whether JN is blatantly anti-Mormon or merely reservedly anti-Mormon but seemingly unable to find a single topic upon which she agrees with the Church and its leadership. She presents herself as a pure and questioning lamb, just wishing for further guidance or perhaps a sit-down conversation with the shepherd about the questionable direction he is leading the flock.

    Well, that kind of lamb is usually called a kid.

    Her pretending is not going to stop. Be prepared for more bleating until she grows into full goat-hood.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    One of the major contributors to the difficulty oif plural marriage was that the Federal government was intentionally making it a crime for a husband to visit or even materially support the plural wives. Actual confinement did not help, and avoiding confinement was a burden to everyone in those families. Did the author oif the book note the role of government persecution in thge burdens those families suffered? And did she compare the journals of the wives in one family, and the journals of the husbands, to see how their perceptions compared?

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