This article was originally published in the Vancouver Sun newspaper on 17 December 2011
Polygamy and Me: Growing up Mormon
by Maggie Rayner
Writer and her two sisters spared from plural marriage but mom believed it was practical to ensure older women were taken care of.
When my family lived in Richmond, a group of Mormon fundamentalists from Bountiful, near Creston, visited our mainstream Mormon congregation extolling the practice of polygamy, also called the principle or plural marriage. They were looking for wives to add to their collections. They targeted families who had young girls.
My oldest sister at 16, with blond hair, blue eyes and a blossoming body, was a magnet for the young men and 19-year-old missionaries of the Church. One Sunday after Sunday school, I watched an older man from Bountiful rush over in the parking lot to open our station wagon door for her. He left the wife he had with him struggling to open their car door on her own, a baby on her hip, a diaper bag over her shoulder, and two toddlers clinging to her legs. I was 10 years old. I giggled at his ardour, finding his behaviour ridiculous, while a queasiness roiled in my stomach.
My parents weren’t swayed by the arguments to take up a polygamous lifestyle and my two sisters and I were saved from the principle.
Even so, my mother explained, “Polygamy is a hardship for men.” This did not make any sense to me.
My mother told me Joseph Smith introduced polygamy in the 1830’s, soon after he founded the Mormon Church, because of the shortage of men and the abundance of women. “There were a lot of widows and older women immigrants, that worked as housekeepers and servants, joining the Church,” she said. “It was practical for the men to take more than one wife to ensure the older women were taken care of.”
Joseph Smith started the new church in Palmyra, N.Y. naming it the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which came to be known as the Mormons. A charismatic and compelling young leader, when he spoke, people listened. Smith claimed to receive visions from God who told him what to do.
My mother, a devout Mormon, accepted the principle as being ordained by God using Smith as his messenger, yet was relieved that she didn’t have to practise it herself. At least not here on Earth. When the Church congregation moved to Salt Lake City to escape persecution for their beliefs and the consequences of their violent activities, the leaders renounced plural marriage in 1890, to adhere to the law and gain statehood for Utah.
The renunciation of polygamy split the membership in two. The mainstream Mormons publicly agreed to stop the practice, although the last plural marriage recorded in the Covenant House where the marriages took place was nearly 30 years later. My great-grandfather, one of the mainstream Mormons who immigrated to Cardston, Alta., had a wife who lived on one side of town, and another who lived on the other side. Neither wife was happy sharing a husband.
Mormon fundamentalists refused to comply with the leaders’ direction and continued to live the principle. The Church hired a public relations firm to distance themselves politically from any association with the Mormon fundamentalists.
The Church’s current position on polygamy, not widely known among younger Mormons, let alone non-members, is that God suspended the practice and temporarily disallowed plural marriage to spare the membership legal and political problems. The president in Salt Lake City, considered a living prophet by members today, could, at any time, give the word, and Latter-day Saint men would once more be called upon to marry multiple wives.
My parents believed the Mormon scriptures written by Joseph Smith, which promised that if they remained devout, dedicated their lives and money to the Church, after they died they would become a god and goddess together and rule over many worlds. My father, however, would be given additional eternal wives. My mother often quoted Smith on the afterlife, as if trying to prepare herself: “Seven women will cling to the coat tails of one man.”
Personally, I believed what my mother told me about polygamy was a crock. For one thing, in the 1800s there were more men than women available to participate in plural marriage.The women chosen as plural wives were young and desirable, not older women in need of care. The wives, and the child labour force they birthed, built and worked the homesteads and ranches that were the foundation for the wealthy corporate and political empire the Mormons would become.
Husbands tended to be away recruiting new members for the Church and courting other women, only visiting each wife long enough to ensure another child. If a wife were a favourite, her husband might allocate more time with her.
While I was growing up, the books I read were censored, limited to Church-approved literature. My parents dedicated themselves to breaking my child’s spirit to accepting their beliefs. The friendships I was permitted and the activities I could pursue were all closely monitored. They were unsuccessful. While I was physically present at the services and activities I was forced to attend under fear of punishment, my mind refused to be taken prisoner.
When I left home and had the freedom to question and seek out history books not sanctioned by the Church, I read with astonishment, and a growing sadness for my mother’s and father’s gullibility, of the chronological events surrounding the introduction of plural marriage.
Smith, while married to his first wife Emma, impregnated a 16-year-old serving girl he was having an affair with. He received a special “revelation” from God sanctioning polygamy, which gave him permission to secretly wed her as his second wife in 1833, an illegal act. When Emma protested, Joseph received another special revelation from God, advising Emma if she didn’t agree to the marriage, and give it her blessing, she would be damned for eternity.
Smith shared these revelations with his trusted Church leaders who began the practice in secret, long before the principle of plural marriage was introduced to the general membership. Marrying multiple wives, and wife swapping, went on among the men in leadership positions. Smith took 33 wives in 10 years, 11 of them married to other men at the time. If any of the women were reluctant to accept his proposal, he used the threat of eternal damnation to gain their compliance.
Dissension occurred among the general membership when they became aware of the secret behaviour of their Church leaders with the female members. When the leaders encouraged them to begin the practice of plural marriage themselves, only about a quarter of them complied.
After reading the sequence of events, I didn’t have to be a Rhodes scholar or a Harvard graduate to find Smith’s revelations regarding polygamy suspect.
Former members and I, no longer in the Mormon fold, speculated, “Do you think Joseph Smith and the second president of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, who had 55 wives wives, were sex addicts?” Historically, men in positions of leadership, with power and influence, have felt a certain entitlement to, well, more. Many developed an insatiable hunger for power and sex that led to the corruption of their initial ideals.
My mother wouldn’t have known what a sex addict was or how to recognize one. While she was growing up there was little, if any, information available about sexuality. The anatomically correct names used to describe intimate parts of the body weren’t common knowledge. Frank discussion of carnal desire or marital relations did not take place. She told me the intimacies of married life came as a surprise to her on their three-day honeymoon in Calgary, after she married my father in the Cardston temple.
I can’t, as a result, fault my mother for believing Smith was following godly direction rather than earthly appetites. She simply didn’t have the knowledge or experience to make informed decisions on what she was taught, and therefore believed, without question.
Whether the same can be said for my father, I don’t know. He held the highest level of priesthood conferred, only on men, by the Mormon Church, and the respected position of a bishop with his own congregation. He never discussed the practice of polygamy with me. I do know, however, that under Mormon doctrine, as a man, he would always be on the more favourable side of the religion.
Maggie Rayner lives in Vancouver.
This article was the genesis of what would become Maggie’s book In Polygamy’s Shadow: From a Mormon Childhood to a Life of Choice. To learn more about the book, including where to purchase it, click here.