Terryl Givens on Polygamy

Have you read Terryl Givens’ outstanding book, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)? With his literary background (he’s an associate professor of English at the University of Richmond), Brother Givens brings a fresh set of tools to his analysis of Mormonism in modern society. His discussion includes an examination of major attacks on the Church, such as the claim that we are a cult.

One passage I read again this morning and felt like sharing deals with polygamy. After examining how novels and the popular press dealt with rumors of Mormon violence and the “barbaric” evil of polygamy, Givens makes the following observations (p. 144):

Depictions of polygamy [in works of fiction] were also, and as predictably, wildly distorted. But then, the actual practice of plural marriage was seldom the stuff of steamy fiction. Writers of pulp fiction were unanimous in their claim that, in one author’s words, “what was planned by Young for man’s paradise proved woman’s hell.” [Mrs. W.A. King, Duncan Davidson; A Story of Polygamy (Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1928), 27.] But from Brigham Young’s pronouncement that he would rather be the corpse in a funeral procession than have to accept the doctrine of polygamy [Journal of Discourses, 3:266] to the dozens of elders incarcerated in Territorial prison for their devotion to the practice to a generation of uniquely stressful marital relations for men and women alike, polygamy was far removed from the male paradise of fiction. Plural marriage was in practice a painful struggle against consciences shaped by Puritan values that most members, converts from Protestant faiths, shared. Domestic arrangements were inconvenient, fraught with jealousies, and, after the first wave of antipolygamy legislation, hampered by flight, concealment, and frequent relocations.

Also at odds with the fictional portrayal of the practice is the fact that in 1852, the same year that polygamy was publicly announced as a principle, Utah passed a divorce statute “that provided women much more control over their lives than was given by any other divorce statute of the nineteenth century, save only that of Indiana.” [Louis Kern, An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopia–the Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 191.] In an 1861 address, Brigham Young stated that “when a woman becomes alienated in her feelings and affections from her husband, it is his duty to give her a bill and set her free.” Even more surprisingly, he claimed that for a husband to continue cohabiting with such a wife was tantamount to fornication. [Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1986) 92-93.] Such opinions were clearly not meant merely for show. During his presidency, Young granted 1,645 divorces. [Ibid., 91. Also see Eugene E. Campbell and Bruce L. Campbell, “Divorce Among Mormon Polygamists: Extent and Explanations,” Utah Historical Quarterly 46 (winter 1978): 4-23.]

Polygamy, then, proved to be a male Utopia only in the conceptions of some indignant–but apparently envious–novelistic fantasizers. Why the ferocious response by both the secular and the religious press? Such an egregious affront to Western standards of moral propriety may seem self-evidently offensive, but more than moral indignation is at work here. That such sensationalizing took place in the context of the most vehement moral outrage is neither surprising nor disingenuous. For it is precisely the transgressive nature of polygamy that excites both envy and rejection. The supposed virtue of exposing “the moral leprosy” of Utah gives at the same time opportunity to luxuriate in all the seamy details one is excoriating.

Many writers and journalists continue to “luxuriate” in seamy details involving past polygamy and the present polygamy of some excommunicated rebels, but it’s not an accurate depiction of Mormon past or present.

I still can’t get over the frequently repeated irony of immoral men and women, who see no problem with fornication or perhaps even adultery, showing great moral indignation over polygamy, which was based on a legal marriage contract.

I admit that I don’t understand polygamy and am grateful that it’s behind us. While it perplexes me, I need to realize that there a lot of things in Christianity and in the Bible in general that still perplex me. Faith and patience are still needed. God has not always done things the way I would do them (undoubtedly to His credit). In addition to that, great men of God have not always done things the way I think God would have them done (e.g., the way some Biblical patriarchs treated their wives or concubines). These gaps between my expectations and past practices of others are no excuse for wavering on my part, or for abandoning my faith in the Living God or departing from a covenant relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Someday we’ll get all the frank answers we want, and we may be surprised and how we misunderstood things–but for now, a little more faith and patience may be in order when it comes to the occasional perplexities of religion.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

2 thoughts on “Terryl Givens on Polygamy

  1. Terryl,
    Your level of self dilusion is sad. You have never thoroughly read your history, exepet the biased publications from your own; you are as much a fraud as Joseph Smith. "The church" as you call it simply makes up the rules as they go along depending upon what is expedient at the time. I have no respect at all for your narrowminded blindness. God help all that you delude. I know you thrive on persecution, as you call it, and I am sorry to add another arrow to that pitifull quiver. Your people are good as are the people outside of your "group" and they deserve the truth as much as all of us do. How can you have a clear concience. There are as many ways to God as there are people, without money, tithing, temple, domination, extortion, threats, shunning, sanctimonious self rightousness, ornate rituals, etc. etc. To require payment to enter your temples, to withhold this and create exclusivity is abhorant. I have had numbers of mormons tell me how odd and really simply disconcerting your trumpted up temple performances are. Everything so theatrical. The hoky film, the paintings, all of it! Please help me understand how intelligent people can fool themselves to this extent. I know so much has been built upon the beginning lies that no one dare speak up. I truely breaks my heart. A lie breeds a lie, breeds a lie and simply cannot be stopped. It all addresses human fears and luckily is made up of things that can not be proved. Death can be so convenient and thank heavens for the driving instincts of men for there also is a convenient driving force. The perfect formula! Oh my, it all simply shocks me and creates such deep disappointment in the intelligence and dependability and integrity of my fellow humans. They are so vulnerable to any trumpted up answer, any trumpted answer. God is there, no doubt, but we, none of us, need all of this trumpted up "stuff" to reach God. It is not an organization which is respected. It's members simply ignore the facts, which just is not admirable.

  2. Rebecca said, "You have never thoroughly read your history, exepet the biased publications from your own; you are as much a fraud as Joseph Smith." – How is it, Rebecca, that you know so much about what Terryl has or hasn't read? What basis do you have for making such insulting remarks? Terryl is providing a hsitorical perspective backed up with analysis and data (see the figures on divorce and the nature of Utah's early divorce law). Do you have some refutation for that? Or are we to simply trust your rhetoric?

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