Social Aspects Of Polygamy

There was something compulsory about all phases of life in Utah

during Brigham Young's regime--the form of employment for the

men, the domestic regulations of the women, the church duties

each should perform, and even the location in the territory

which they should call their home. Not only did large numbers of

the foreign immigrants find themselves in debt to the church on

their arrival, and become compelled in this way to labor on the

"public works" as they might be ordered, but the skilled

mechanics who brought their tools with them in most cases found

on their arrival that existence in Utah meant a contest with the

soil for food. Even when a mechanic obtained employment at his

trade it was in the ruder branches.

Mormon authorities have always tried to show that Americans have

predominated in their community. Tullidge classes the population

in this order: Americans, English, Scandinavian (these claim

one-fifth of the Mormon population of Utah), Scotch, Welsh,

Germans, and a few Irish, French, Italians, and Swiss. The

combination of new-comers and the emigrants from Nauvoo made a

rude society of fanatics,* before whom there was held out enough

prospect of gain in land values (scarcely one of the immigrants

had ever been a landowner) to overcome a good deal of the

discontent natural to their mode of life, and who, in religious

matters, were held in control by a priesthood, against whom they

could not rebel without endangering that hope of heaven which

had induced them to journey across the ocean. There are

roughness and lawlessness in all frontier settlements, but this

Mormon community differed from all other gatherings of new

population in the American West. It did not migrate of its own

accord, attracted by a fertile soil or precious ores; it was

induced to migrate, not without misrepresentation concerning

material prospects, it is true, but mainly because of the hope

that by doing so it would share in the blessings and protection

of a Zion. The gambling hell and the dance hall, which form

principal features of frontier mining settlements, were wanting

in Salt Lake City, and the absence of the brothel was pointed to

as evidence of the moral effect of polygamy.

* "I have discovered thus early (1852) that little deference is

paid to women. Repeatedly, in my long walk to our boarding

house, I was obliged to retreat back from the [street] crossing

places and stand on one side for men to cross over. There are

said to be a great many of the lower order of English here, and

this rudeness, so unusual with our countrymen, may proceed from

them."-- Mrs. Ferris. "Life among the Mormons."

The system of plural marriages left its impress all over the home

life of the territory. Many of the Mormon leaders, as we have

seen, had more wives than one when they made their first trip

across the plains, and the practice of polygamy, while denied on

occasion, was not concealed from the time the settlement was

made in the valley to the date of its public proclamation. In the

early days, a man with more than one wife provided for them

according to his means. Young began with quarters better than

the average, but modest in their way, and finally occupied the

big buildings which cost him many thousands of dollars. If a man

with several wives had the means to do so, he would build a long,

low dwelling, with an outside door for each wife, and thus house

all under the same roof in a sort of separate barracks. When

Gunnison wrote, in 1852, there were many instances in which more

than one wife shared the same house when it contained only one

apartment, but he said: "It is usual to board out the extra

ones, who most frequently pay their own way by sewing, and other

female employments." Mrs. Ferris wrote: "The mass of the

dwellings are small, low, and hutlike. Some of them literally

swarmed with women and children, and had an aspect of extreme

want of neatness . . . . One family, in which there were two

wives, was living in a small hut--three children very sick [with

scarlet fever]--two beds and a cook-stove in the same room,

creating the air of a pest-house."*

* "Life among the Mormons," pp. 111, 145.

Hyde, describing the city in 1857, thus enumerated the home

accommodations of some of the leaders:--"A very pretty house on

the east side was occupied by the late J. M. Grant and his five

wives. A large barrack-like house on the corner is tenanted by

Ezra T. Benson and his four ladies. A large but mean-looking

house to the west was inhabited by the late Parley P. Pratt and

his nine wives. In that long, dirty row of single rooms, half

hidden by a very beautiful orchard and garden, lived Dr. Richard

and his eleven wives. Wilford Woodruff and five wives reside in

another large house still further west. O. Pratt and some four or

five wives occupy an adjacent building. Looking toward the

north, we espy a whole block covered with houses, barns,

gardens, and orchards. In these dwell H. C. Kimball and his

eighteen or twenty wives, their families and dependents."*

* "Mormonism," p. 34. The number of wives of the church leaders

decreased in later years. Beadle, giving the number of wives

"supposed to appertain to each" in 1882, credits President

Taylor with four (three having died), and the Apostles with an

average of three each, Erastus Snow having five, and four others

only two each.

Horace Greeley, prejudiced as he was in favor of the Mormons when

he visited Salt Lake City in 1859, was forced to observe:--"The

degradation (or, if you please, the restriction) of woman to the

single office of childbearing and its accessories is an

inevitable consequence of the system here paramount. I have not

observed a sign in the streets, an advertisement in the

journals, of this Mormon metropolis, whereby a woman proposes to

do anything whatever. No Mormon has ever cited to me his wife's

or any woman's opinion on any subject; no Mormon woman has been

introduced or spoken to me; and, though I have been asked to

visit Mormons in their houses, no one has spoken of his wife (or

wives) desiring to see me, or his desiring me to make her (or

their) acquaintance, or voluntarily indicated the existence of

such a being or beings."*

* "Overland journey," p. 217.

Woman's natural jealousy, and the suffering that a loving wife

would endure when called upon to share her husband's affection

and her home with other women, would seem to form a sort of

natural check to polygamous marriages. But in Utah this check

was overcome both by the absolute power of the priesthood over

their flock, and by the adroit device of making polygamy not

merely permissive, but essential to eternal salvation. That the

many wives of even so exalted a prophet as Brigham Young could

become rebellious is shown by the language employed by him in

his discourse of September 21, 1856, of which the following will

suffice as a specimen:--"Men will say, 'My wife, though a most

excellent woman, has not seen a happy day since I took my second

wife; no, not a happy day for a year.' . . . I wish my women to

understand that what I am going to say is for them, as well as

all others, and I want those who are here to tell their sisters,

yes, all the women in this community, and then write it back to

the states, and do as you please with it. I am going to give you

from this time till the 6th day of October next for reflection,

that you may determine whether you wish to stay with your

husbands or not, and then I am going to set every woman at

liberty, and say to them, 'Now go your way, my women with the

rest; go your way.' And my wives have got to do one of two

things; either round up their shoulders to endure the

afflictions of this world, and live their religion, or they may

leave, for I will not have them about me. I will go into heaven

alone, rather than have scratching and fighting all around me. I

will set all at liberty. What, first wife too?' Yes,I will

liberate you all. I know what my women will say; they will say,

'You can have as many women as you please, Brigham.' But I want

to go somewhere and do something to get rid of the whiners . . .

. Sisters, I am not joking."*

* Journal of Discourses, Vol. IV, p. 55.

Grant, on the same day, in connection with his presentation of

the doctrine of blood atonement, declared that there was

"scarcely a mother in Israel" who would not, if they could,

"break asunder the cable of the Church in Christ; and they talk

it to their husbands, to their daughters, and to their neighbors,

and say that they have not seen a week's happiness since they

became acquainted with that law, or since their husbands took a

second wife."* The coarse and plain-spoken H. C. Kimball, in a

discourse in the Tabernacle, November 9, 1856, thus defined the

duty of polygamous wives, "It is the duty of a woman to be

obedient to her husband, and, unless she is, I would not give a

damn for all her queenly right or authority, nor for her either,

if she will quarrel and lie about the work of God and the

principles of plurality."**

* Ibid, P. 52.

** Deseret News, Vol. VI, p. 291.

Gentile observers were amazed, in the earlier days of Utah, to

see to what lengths the fanatical teachings of the church

officers would be accepted by women. Thus Mrs. Ferris found that

the explanation of the willingness of many young women in Utah

to be married to venerable church officers, who already had

harems, was their belief that they could only be "saved" if

married or sealed to a faithful Saint, and that an older man was

less likely to apostatize, and so carry his wives to perdition

with him, than a young one; therefore "it became an object with

these silly fools to get into the harems of the priests and


If this advantage of the church officers in the selection of new

wives did not avail, other means were employed,*as in the

notorious San Pete case. The officers remaining at home did not

hesitate to insist on a fair division of the spoils (that is,

the marriageable immigrants), as is shown by the following

remarks of Heber C. Kimball to some missionaries about starting

out: "Let truth and righteousness be your motto, and don't go

into the world for anything but to preach the Gospel, build up

the Kingdom of God, and gather the sheep into the fold. You are

sent out as shepherds to gather the sheep together; and remember

that they are not your sheep; they belong to Him that sends you.

Then don't make a choice of any of those sheep; don't make

selections before they are brought home and put into the fold.

You understand that. Amen." Mr. Ferris thus described the use of

his priestly power made by Wilford Woodruff, who, as head of the

church in later years, gave out the advice about abandoning

polygamy: "Woodruff has a regular system of changing his harem.

He takes in one or more young girls, and so manages, after he

tires of them, that they are glad to ask for a divorce, after

which he beats the bush for recruits. He took a fresh one, about

fourteen years old, in March, 1853, and will probably get rid of

her in the course of the ensuing summer." **

* Conan Doyle's story, "A Study in scarlet," is founded on the

use of this power.

** "Utah and the Mormons," p. 255.

Mrs. Waite thus relates a conversation she had with a Mormon wife

about her husband going into polygamy:--"'Oh, it is hard,' she

said, 'very hard; but no matter, we must bear it. It is a

correct principle, and there is no salvation without it. We had

one [wife] but it was so hard, both for my husband and myself,

that we could not endure it, and she left us at the end of seven

months. She had been with us as a servant several months, and

was a good girl; but as soon as she was made a wife she became

insolent, and told me she had as good a right to the house and

things as I had, and you know that didn't suit me well. But,'

continued she, 'I wish we had kept her, and I had borne

everything, for we have GOT TO HAVE ONE, and don't you think it

would be pleasanter to have one you had known than a stranger?'"*

* "The Mormon Prophet," p. 260. Many accounts of the feeling

of first wives regarding polygamy may be found in this book and

in Mrs. Stenhouse's "Tell it All."

The voice which the first wife had in the matter was defined in

the Seer (Vol. I, p. 41). If she objected, she could state her

objection to President Young, who, if he found the reason

sufficient, could forbid the marriage; but if he considered that

her reason was not good, then the marriage could take place, and

"he [the husband] will be justified, and she will be condemned,

because she did not give them unto him as Sarah gave Hagar to

Abraham, and as Rachel and Leah gave Bilhah and Zilpah to their

husband, Jacob." Young's dictatorship in the choice of wives

was equally absolute. "No man in Utah," said the Seer (Vol. I,

p. 31), "who already has a wife, and who may desire to obtain

another, has any right to make any proposition of marriage to a

lady until he has consulted the President of the whole church,

and through him obtained a revelation from God as to whether it

would be pleasing in His sight."

The authority of the priesthood was always exerted to compel at

least every prominent member of the church to take more wives

than one. "For a man to be confined to one woman is a small

business," said Kimball in the Tabernacle, on April 4, 1857.

This influence coerced Stenhouse to take as his second wife a

fourteen-year-old daughter of Parley P. Pratt, although he loved

his legal wife, and she had told him that she would not live

with him if he married again, and although his intimate friend,

Superintendent Cooke, of the Overland Stage Company, to save

him, threatened to prosecute him under the law against bigamy if

he yielded.* Another illustration, given by Mrs. Waite, may be

cited. Kimball, calling on a Prussian immigrant named Taussig

one day, asked him how he was doing and how many wives he had,

and on being told that he had two, replied, "That is not enough.

You must take a couple more. I'll send them to you." The

narrative continues:--

* When Mr. and Mrs. Stenhouse left the church at the time of the

"New Movement" their daughter, who was a polygamous wife of

Brigham Young's son, decided with the church and refused even to

speak with her parents.

"On the following evening, when the brother returned home, he

found two women sitting there. His first wife said, 'Brother

Taussig' (all the women call their husbands brother), 'these are

the Sisters Pratt.' They were two widows of Parley P. Pratt. One

of the ladies, Sarah, then said, 'Brother Taussig, Brother

Kimball told us to call on you, and you know what for.' 'Yes,

ladies,' replied Brother Taussig, 'but it is a very hard task

for me to marry two' The other remarked, 'Brother Kimball told

us you were doing a very good business and could support more

women.' Sarah then took up the conversation, 'Well, Brother

Taussig, I want to get married anyhow.' The good brother

replied, 'Well, ladies, I will see what I can do and let you


* "The Mormon Prophet," p. 258.

Brother Taussig compromised the matter with the Bishop of his

ward by marrying Sarah, but she did not like her new home, and

he was allowed to divorce her on payment of $10 to Brigham


Each polygamous family was, of course, governed in accordance

with the character of its head: a kind man would treat all his

wives kindly, however decided a preference he might show for

one; and under a brute all would be unhappy. Young, in his

earlier days at Salt Lake City, used to assemble all his family

for prayers, and have a kind word for each of the women, and all

ate at a common table after his permanent residences were built.

"Brigham's wives," says Hyde, "although poorly clothed and hard

worked, are still very infatuated with their system, very devout

in their religion, very devoted to their children. They content

themselves with his kindness as they cannot obtain his love."* He

kept no servants, the wives performing all the household work,

and one of them acting as teacher to her own and the others'

children. As the excuse for marriage with the Mormons is

childbearing, the older wives were practically discarded, taking

the place of examples of piety and of spiritual advisers.

* "Mormonism," p. 164.

** How far this doctrine was not observed may be noted in the

following remarks of H. C. Kimball in the Tabernacle, on

February 1, 1857: "They [his wives] have got to live their

religion, serve their God, and do right as well as myself.

Suppose that I lose the whole of them before I go into the

spiritual world, but that I have been a good, faithful man all

the days of my life, and lived my religion, and had favor with

God, and was kind to them, do you think I will be destitute

there? No. The Lord says there are more there than there are

here. They have been increasing there; they increase there a

great deal faster than they do here, because there is no

obstruction. They do not call upon the doctors to kill their

offspring. In this world very many of the doctors are studying to

diminish the human race. In the spiritual world . . . we will go

to Brother Joseph . . . and he will say to us, 'Come along, my

boys, we will give you a good suit of clothes. Where are your

wives?' 'They are back yonder; they would not follow us.' 'Never

mind,' says Joseph, 'here are thousands; have all you

want.'"--Journal of Discourses, Vol. IV, p. 209.

A summing up of the many-sided evils of polygamy was thus

presented by President Cleveland in his first annual message:--

"The strength, the perpetuity, and the destiny of the nation

rests upon our homes, established by the law of God, guarded by

parental care, regulated by parental authority, and sanctified

by parental love. These are not the homes of polygamy.

"The mothers of our land, who rule the nation as they mould the

characters and guide the actions of their sons, live according

to God's holy ordinances, and each, secure and happy in the

exclusive love of the father of her children, sheds the warm

light of true womanhood, unperverted and unpolluted, upon all

within her pure and wholesome family circle. These are not the

cheerless, crushed, and unwomanly mothers of polygamy.

"The fathers of our families are the best citizens of the

Republic. Wife and children are the sources of patriotism, and

conjugal and parental affection beget devotion to the country.

The man who, undefiled with plural marriage, is surrounded in

his single home with his wife and children, has a status in the

country which inspires him with respect for its laws and courage

for its defence. These are not the fathers of polygamous


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