New book chronicles early polygamy among Mormons

Associated Press/February 8, 2009

If the past is a window to the present, then a new book about polygamy among early Mormons could be a portal to understanding where some contemporary Utah polygamists have found inspiration for their way of life.

From child brides and secret ceremonies to their defiance of marriage laws, the narrative in George D. Smith's "Nauvoo Polygamy" illustrates the development and breadth of polygamy as it was first practiced in the 1840s by the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in Nauvoo, Ill.

"It changes our understanding of a plurality of wives," polygamy historian Martha Sontag Bradley said of the book. "It provides indisputable, quantifiable evidence that the scope of plural marriage was more broad and deep than we had imagined."

In nearly 700 pages, the book weaves the story of church founder Joseph Smith's relationships with the more than 30 women he married and how he persuaded his closest followers that "celestial marriage" was a sacred and essential religious practice.

In addition, more than 70 pages of charts uniquely chronicle Illinois marriages between 196 Mormon men and 717 women - about four wives to each man - including the dates of the unions and, when available, the ages of husbands and wives.

The records show more than 200 of the brides were 17 or younger. Often they married men 10 or more years older, including 12-year-old Mary Ann Williams whose husband was 43 when they married in 1856.

The data are somewhat similar to marriage and family records seized last year from a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ranch in a raid by Texas authorities. One of Utah's largest polygamous groups, the traditionally insular FLDS closely follow Joseph Smith's original teachings.

Publicity and rumor have swirled around the FLDS since 2006, when church leader Warren Jeffs was arrested and then convicted in Utah of rape as an accomplice for his role in the 2001 marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her cousin.

In Texas, a dozen FLDS men, including Jeffs, have been charged with crimes ranging from sexual assault of a child to failure to report child abuse. Jeffs, 53, is accused of a sexual assault involving a 12-year-old girl he is said to have married.

"It was all laid out in Nauvoo," said Bradley. "The (book's) view on plural marriage in its earliest and subterranean years suggest that underage marriage has always been a part of the story. The template for the layering of relationships, practice and doctrine was created by Joseph Smith, enriched under Brigham Young and lived under the administration of Jeffs."

The Texas raid in some ways echoes Nauvoo, where polygamy fueled such public anger that Smith was killed and Mormons were run out of Illinois.

"Just looking at Texas it does give you a certain amount of empathy with how Mormons were viewed in the 1840s," George D. Smith said.

Currently, FLDS leaders say the faith does not practice or condone underage marriage.

Whether in the 1840s or today, Mormon polygamists believe plural marriage leads to glory in the afterlife.

Established as church doctrine through revelation, Joseph Smith began the practice in about 1841, secretly marrying at least two women that year. One by one, he taught followers that plural marriage was not optional or arbitrary, but an essential element of being a full member of the church, George D. Smith said.

Some men and women resisted, but entering polygamy "became proof of loyalty and fortitude," said Bradley.

The sales pitch for polygamy was a combination of eternal promises and threats.

"There is this sense that if you don't do this, the afterlife is really going to be bleak," George D. Smith said. "But if you take this chance and accept Smith as a husband and join with these other wives you will have all these rewards and endless glory."

According to "Nauvoo Polygamy," 38 women were sufficiently seduced and married Joseph Smith.

Some were sisters. Some were widows. At least one was pregnant and 11 were already married to other men.

The two youngest brides were 14 and the oldest 58 when they married the 37-year-old Smith in 1843. The church leader married 20 women that year, typically over the objections of Emma Smith, his first and only legal wife.

George D. Smith's accounting of marriages adds five to the 33 that most scholars agree can be documented for Joseph Smith. The actual number may never be known.

Ultimately, the Mormon church would abandon polygamy as a condition of Utah's statehood in 1890, forcing the practice underground. An estimated 37,000 self-described fundamentalist Mormons now live across the intermountain West and western Canada, practicing polygamy in organized groups like the FLDS, or independently.

The mainstream Mormon church now excommunicates members who engage in the practice, although Smith's revelatory doctrine remains in scripture. The modern church has tried to distance itself from its polygamous past, by saying only a small percentage of Latter-day Saints were polygamists.

Some church Sunday school manuals have also eliminated or glossed over references to the plural wives of 19th century church presidents, including Brigham Young, who by George D. Smith's accounting had 56 wives.

That denial of history in part drove George D. Smith's curiosity and the book.

"I guess I was intrigued by the obvious forgetting," said the author, whose research is largely based on documents and diaries held in the Mormon church archives.

"Here is something that was so elemental to the organization of the Mormons and yet there is this obvious lack of understanding. So the question is, why is the institution trying to forget?" he asked. "They are really trying to rinse the color out of LDS history."

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