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Commentary —  5 May 2008

Polygamy Then and Now

In the April 23, 2008 online-edition of The New York Times, Timothy Egan wrote a post on the Outposts blog claiming that the way polygamy is practiced today by members of the FLDS sect in Eldorado, Texas is the same as it was practiced by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the 19th century.

While most people know that Mormons abandoned the practice of polygamy at the end of the 19th century, it's also important to understand that the conditions surrounding the practice of polygamy in Texas today bear little resemblance to the plural marriage practiced by Mormons more than a century ago. In fact, a closer look at history contradicts the simple reductive characterizations of "Mormon polygamy" offered by Egan. As thoughtful historians know, a serious study of history does not impose contemporary understandings and sensibilities onto an interpretation of earlier time periods.

Much of the argument Egan makes for similarities between FLDS polygamy and early Mormon marriage practices relates to the claim of "sexual manipulation" of children as evidenced by the age of marriage. In fact, men and women often married at a much younger age in the 19th century than we find acceptable today. Historian Kathryn Daynes, who has studied the subject in depth, says that although the female average age at marriage in the United States during the nineteenth century was twenty or older, a girl marrying at age 15 was not uncommon and certainly was not considered abused.  The common-law marriage age for women was 12.  Historically, outside of northwestern Europe, women at 14 to 16 were assumed to be ready for marriage. 

Egan also seeks to equate the stereotypical view of 19th century Mormon women as timid, subservient, and backward, to the image of FLDS women portrayed in recent days in the media. History, however, paints a different picture. Nineteenth-century Mormon women, in both plural and monogamous marriages, were not just interested in raising families and blindly following their husbands. They were politically active and participated in territorial elections. Many were well connected with national women's organizations. These women also taught school and were active in publishing and literary activities. Some even served their communities by going to medical school and becoming skilled physicians. Because of their competence and level of self-reliance, they did not have to resort to public assistance.

Unlike the contemporary practice of polygamy in Eldorado, Texas, 19th century plural marriage among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not controlled by the arbitrary authority of one individual. On the contrary, decisions related to marriage were settled by consideration of the feelings of all interested parties. Furthermore, the consent of individual women was always honored in any marriage proposal. Though there was some social and cultural pressure, it was not determinative. Both men and women were free to refuse offers of marriage they found unacceptable.

Brigham Young did not arrange marriages unless he was asked to, and he readily granted divorces. Far from the misconceptions of life-long servitude to the absolute power of the patriarchy, this non-legalistic system of divorce allowed women considerable autonomy.

In distinction to the cloistered isolation of today's polygamous groups, including the FLDS, Mormon culture in the 19th century was characterized by a vibrancy of productive activity in various fields of endeavor: education, industry, politics, community-building, agriculture, and many professions. Latter-day Saints strived to move apace with the rapid demands and changes of life and sought to embrace modernity, not thwart it. They sought to take advantage of the ideas and innovations of modern life by establishing schools and universities of higher education. In this they followed the advice of Joseph Smith: "One of the grand fundamental principles of 'Mormonism' is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may."

Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is sacred and ordained of God. The family is the basic social unit in this life and in the next. The social, emotional, and spiritual health of all family members was (in the 19th century) and is today the primary concern of every Latter-day Saint mother and father. Mr. Egan's cavalier comparison of FLDS polygamous practices with those of 19th century Latter-day Saints is historically unsupported and simply wrong. By implication, he also unfairly impugns the integrity of all Latter-day Saint marriages and families, the very institutions they hold most dear.

Elder Marlin K. Jensen
Church Historian, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Style Guide Note: When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online style guide.

 
 
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