A History
Richard Van Wagoner
(Signature Books)
The biographical notes about the author tell us that Van Wagoner is "a clinical audiologist from Brigham Young University. He is married to Mary Carter and has five daughters..." We almost expected to read "and has five other wives, too, named Leslie, Jill, Phoebe Ann, Sue, and Zinnia..."

Mormon Polygamy is an honorable and non-biased book, with great amounts of surprising information, including the fact that there is still a wing of the Mormon church --- called Fundamentalists, 30,000 in number --- who, to this day, without fanfare, practice polygamy.

Joseph Smith revealed his belief in multiple marriages in 1830 or so, and Phelps reports that he said:

    It is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites (Indians), that their posterity may become white, delightsome, and just.

Smith drew his justification for such carryings-on from the Old Testament, most especially from the books of Genesis, Samuel, and Chronicles. The Book of Kings tells us that Solomon had seven hundred wives and more than three hundred concubines.

There was another factor that made Smith so interested in polygamy, outside of the prophecy, the Bible, and his own personal revelations. He had something wrong with his eye. It wandered; apparently, endlessly. For example, he was tarred and feathered in Ohio because (although he was married) he had made advances on a lady by the name of Nancy Marinda Wilson. In addition, he had taken in (and was taken by) several servant girls; and there was the case of two young female orphans. The two, Emily and Eliza Partridge, moved into the Smith home in 1840. Emily later wrote that Joseph told her,

    The Lord had commanded him to enter into plural marriage, and had given me to him, and although I had got badly frightened, he knew I would yet have him, so he waited till the Lord told him...

Van Wagoner reports: "Emily agreed to the prophet's proposal and was married there and then." For obvious reasons, his interest in them appalled his long-suffering wife Emma Hale Smith. He contrived to keep what they archly called "the sealing" from her, but without success.

During the course of his short life, Smith advanced on and proposed to an amazing number of ladies in and out of his stake, his town, and his house. There was, for example, Nancy Rigdon, in the Mormon community of Nauvoo, Illinois. A George Robinson, brother-in-law to Nancy, reported:

    Smith took her into a room, locked the door, and then stated to her that he had had an affection for her for several years, and wished that she should be his; that the Lord was well pleased with this matter, for he had got a revelation on the subject, and God had given him all the blessings of Jacob, etc., etc., and that there was no sin in it whatsoever.

God, according to Smith, was behind his offer of love and marriage. Despite the presence of the Divine, Robinson reported that Nancy...repulsed him and was about to raise the neighbors if he did not unlock the door and let her out.

Smith was given to making many pronouncements on polygamy to his followers, stating that they came in the form of revelations from the Lord, then, upon hearing vigorous protest (often, led by Emma and his brother Hyrum) would, at once, retract his statements, say it was all a mistake. When the inevitable scandal erupted, he would say that he had propositioned the woman because he wished to ascertain whether she was virtuous or not, and took that course to learn the facts.

Let's face it. If one is willing to believe this book --- and its documentation is impressive --- Smith was a charismatic, artfully spoken, lusty old goat. He was also temperamental, willful, and violent. When he handed down the pronunciamento of polygamy, his wife Emma demurred, and Smith wrote: "If she will not abide this...she shall be destroyed..."

He was willing to indulge in any act to silence his critics. When a newspaper in Nauvoo called Smith a "fallen prophet" who

    introduced false and damnable doctrines into the Church, such as plurality of Gods above the God of this universe, and his liability to fall with all his creations, the plurality of wives, for time and eternity...

Smith, who was Mayor of the unfortunate community, ordered the city marshall to

    ...destroy the printing press from whence issues the Nauvoo Expositor and put the type of said printing establishment in the street, and burn all the Expositor and libelous handbills found in said establishment...

Willful, angry, powerful, scheming, lusty --- Smith lived violently and died violently. Governor Ford of Illinois demanded an explanation for the destruction of the newspaper, Smith was arrested, and on 27 June 1844, a mob --- disguised in black-face --- broke into Carthage Jail and shot Joseph and Hyrum Smith to death.

§     §     §

The Mormons moved to Utah, and officially announced in 1852 an advocacy of polygamy --- making their relations with the rest of the United States difficult at a time that they badly wanted statehood for Utah. What they wanted was a Mormon theocratic kingdom, but they contented themselves with petitioning for (and getting) territorial status. Brigham Young, the immediate follower to Smith, announced "I have many more wives than one...and am not ashamed to have it known." The Mormon marriage system was puritanical, but the publicity from the rest of the nation suggested that they were in the midst of "a harem, dominated by lascivious males with hyperactive libidos." As the author points out:

    Newspaper representatives and public figures visited the city [Salt Lake City] in droves seeking headlines for their eastern audiences. Mormon plural marriage, dedicated to propagating the species righteously and dispassionately, proved to be a rather drab lifestyle compared to the imaginative tales of polygamy, dripping with sensationalism, demanded by the scandalous hungry eastern media market.

Although all were instructed from the pulpit to engage in polygamy, even at its height in the late 1850s only twenty to forty percent of the males adhered to these exhortations. Members were convinced the United States Supreme Court would uphold this reality of Mormon life, but in 1879, Reynolds v. the United States declared that although the federal system could not interfere with

    mere religious belief...[it] may with which makes them no more than a breeding farm for males. Indeed, the reality of multiple wives may have been a sacrament for the husband, but it was devilish for the women.

George Tanner, a Utah educator and polygamous son, wrote,

    I doubt there was a woman in the church who was in any way connected with polygamy who was not heartsick ... They would not admit it in public because of their loyalty to the church ... the women try to be brave, but no woman is able to share a husband whom she loves with one or more other women.

And a Sadie Johnson reported "If anyone in this world thinks plural marriage is not a trial, they are wrong..." The author comments:

    Church members, recognizing that the eyes of the world were upon them, may have been inclined to put forth a sanitized "storybook polygamy" publically rather than portraying the real hardships involved in trying to live the practice...

To some of us, the early history of religions is a delight, because it demonstrates fallibility in humans' attempt to work what they perceive as the command of the divine which, as always, may be viewed but dimly through the myriad of human prejudices and ego problems. Comic aspects will always be glossed over by later church historians. Those who study early Catholic history find that Church leaders believed in abortion, priestly marriage, and metempsychosis. Those who read 15th and 16th Century history of the church find that the acts of witch-burnings and the Inquisition were all a product of belief that Papal zeal was an honest reflection of the will of God. Abortion was not seen to be a sin in the Mother Church before 1869, leading the impious to ask if those who practiced it in those far-off times are now assigned to hell for wrongful acts or to heaven because they were not adequately apprised of the truth.

The Catholics are not the only sect to be cursed (or blessed) with a strange and contradictory history of teachings and practice. Those who read the early writings of Luther will find a man who was as violent and bad-tempered and as diabolical in vengeance as Joseph Smith. Those who investigate the early circumcision ceremonies in Judaism will find a very strange ritual indeed on the part of the rabbi. Those who seek the origins of the word "Quaker" will find tales of ritual madness in early church ceremonies. And those who are willing to read the early sayings of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson will find some amazing statements about "negroes," the blindness of the poor, or the exact nature of the divine.

Because religion grows out of humans, it seems that the practice and words of the early leaders reveal more than they (or their followers) would want to remember concerning Divine Beliefs on the subject of hates, virulence, and egoism, not to say anti-social acts.

Most of the Mormons who are part of the "Modern" church tend to be officious and puritan. It is no accident that Howard Hughes in his last days relied on several followers of Smith to do his dirty work, because he knew they were honest, wouldn't get soused on the job, and would follow his every command. Richard Nixon relied on members of the Washington stake for much the same reason.

It is fun to look back at the wildness of a sect's early history: to realize (no matter how much they may deny it) that the early leaders were panderers and reprobates and miscreants (no more nor less than the rest of us). No matter how Holier Than Thou they may profess to be, we will always remember that Joseph Smith was not and is not the oversanitized, silver-plated, divinely-inspired character that they try to palm off on us, but was, instead, a goat-footed, inspired, temperamental, wild-eyed, extremely talented and organization-minded philanderer who was, indeed, so much more human than the mannikin they keep trying to thrust on us from out of the black hole of history.

--- Reprinted from
The Fessenden Review
Summer, 1986

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