Polygamy and the Shaping of Mormon Identity

I am currently reading “A Mormon Mother: The autobiography of Annie Clark Tanner.” My dissertation advisor had told me the story of Tanner’s experience with polygamy was “heartbreaking”, and indeed several moments in the text have invoked my sympathy for this remarkable woman. However, Tanner manages to convey her ordeals without indulging in self pity, and her memories never devolve into bitterness and resentment, even though such feelings would have been justified. Perhaps herein lies the power of this text: Tanner manages her difficult past with such dignity and honesty (but without didactic piety) that the reader feels he must supply the outrage on her behalf. At least that has been my experience so far. And—for those not familiar with this book—this is not a humble pioneer “my life on the prairie” diary. Tanner was an educated and eloquent woman whose combination of honesty and restraint should serve as a model to would-be present day Mormon memoirists.

It appears so far in my reading that much of her difficulties resulted from anti-polygamy crackdown of the Edmunds-Tucker Act. Once pregnant, she was forced to go “underground,” assuming a different name and being secreted to various homes until her baby was born. However, a lot of the pain underlying the text results from the indignities and loneliness that characterized so many polygamous experiences, independent of federal persecution. Tanner concedes that monogamous marriages have their problems as well, but that with plural marriage the degree of difficulty is multiplied by the number of wives.

I have never made my peace with polygamy, probably never will, and probably don’t really need to. However, in considering what an enormously dysfunctional program it appears to have been, I had a few thoughts—maybe not all that original—that I’ve been mulling. I wonder if one of the primary functions of polygamy was to make Mormonism irreconcilably weird. So weird that full assimilation into American society would never be possible. So weird that a candidate’s Mormonism (among other things) would prevent him from becoming president. In fact, if we want to imagine a Mormonism without polygamy in its history, we might look no further than the Community of Christ, who not only has denied Joseph Smith’s polygamy but continues to become less and less distinguishable from mainline American Protestantism as they back away, by degrees, from Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Polygamy got Joseph killed and put the Saints on the trail to the West, where a distinctive cultural identity could continue to develop until the early Twentieth Century. (I know I’m oversimplifying the history here, but I think my point still stands.)

On a more mystical level, I wonder if our history of polygamy continues to shape our collective Mormon consciousness in ways we don’t quite understand. For example, perhaps because it defies simple explanation, polygamy provides a check to existing tendencies to view morality in purely black and white terms. (Like Nephi killing Laban, polygamy can stop a pious person in his or her tracks and provoke some hard questions.) Was polygamy a necessary ingredient in a larger recipe for the creation of a distinctive and peculiar people? When taken in isolation, this ingredient might be too bitter to swallow. But when combined with the whole, maybe it’s indispensable.

I don’t mean to propose this as a great and final explanation. Just some thought’s I’ve had as I read “A Mormon Mother.” I don’t think we’ll ever quite get it in this life. In the meantime, however, I think it’s worth honoring the stories of individuals like Annie Clark Tanner whose sacrifice and endurance in often frustrating and lonely marriages have helped shape our culture in ways we cannot fully appreciate.

19 Replies to “Polygamy and the Shaping of Mormon Identity”

  1. Yep. He also wrote the introduction to this edition and I believe is responsible for bringing it to the public.

  2. “Perhaps herein lies the power of this text: Tanner manages her difficult past with such dignity and honesty (but without didactic piety) that the reader feels he must supply the outrage on her behalf.”

    Interesting observation, and one that I completely agree with. It’s been several years since I read “A Mormon Mother”, but I still feel this way.

    I think this is an excellent post, on the whole. I agree with you– Mormon polygamy was and still is puzzling. I’m still not convinced that it was necessary at all.

  3. Interesting post on Tanner’s writing. It reminds me of advice I read a while back to writers that goes something like, “Write so that the reader neither likes nor pities you.”

  4. I think polygamy was a complete disaster that caused nearly a century of unnecessary misery. All you have to do is look to the modern FLDS church to see what it does to women and children. Emma most of all suffered unjustly because Joseph began the practice without her knowledge or consent. Many other marriages suffered under the doctrine and more than 1,300 fathers went to prison under the Edmunds anti-polygamy act of 1882.

    In regard to Joseph’s death, I think polygamy was a contributing factor, it certainly made him enemies, but from my research it appears the tipping point really came from political tensions in the region and anger caused when he ordered the destruction of the Expositor press. Bushman sums it up in Rough Stone Rolling:

    “Joseph failed to see that suppression of the paper was far more likely to arouse a mob than the libels. It was a fatal mistake.” “The closing of the Expositor was a perfect excuse. The long campaign against Joseph and the Mormons made their “extermination from civilized society” the logical course of action.”

  5. ” I wonder if one of the primary functions of polygamy was to make Mormonism irreconcilably weird. So weird that full assimilation into American society would never be possible. So weird that a candidate’s Mormonism (among other things) would prevent him from becoming president. ”

    I remember talking about this with you once (I think it was at Gandolfos). I find our collective longing for normalcy and acceptance to be interesting. I think that polygamy, amongst other things will always mark us as different. We should embrace it.

  6. Clean Cut and Hunter, thanks for the comments.

    Happy, I was thinking along the lines that the thing that enraged Joseph enough to trash the Expositor was the polygamy expose it contained. Also, stuff I’ve read indicates that the polygamy rumors made Joseph just that much more deserving of death, that much less human, in the minds of his enemies. As far as polygamy being a catastrophe, I’m not willing to go that far. It’s hard to say what it might have looked like without the added stresses of migration, settlement, and persecution. But I’m not about to start defending it either.

    Chris…Gandolfos…the good old days. I agree that we shouldn’t care about being different. In fact, I’ve thought that a nice T-shirt of bumper sticker would be “Keep Mormonism Weird.” Hey, maybe that could be a facebook group.

  7. Well, that is why they say the Jews retained their cultural and religious identity for so long–they refused to assimilate into the greater culture. (And indeed, were so odd that the surrounding culture refused to assimilate them, in most cases.)

    I have read “A Mormon Mother” and was greatly moved by it, also.

  8. That’s a good point Sheldon, I never really thought about how much polygamy must have dehumanized Joseph in the eyes of his enemies.

    In terms of the weirdness, I would actually like to see less weird. It would probably really help the church don’t you think?

  9. I think we should embrace our weirdness because we are weird. This doesn’t mean we should embrace polygamy but that we should acknowledge that it is a historical factor in our weirdness.

    I worry that the desire for less weirdness is rooted in a craving for for worldly acceptance. I prefer authenticity or truth, rather than acceptance.

  10. I heard some comments from a member who was called in to help the church do PR for the Salt Lake olympics. He asked “why can’t we just write a pamphlet about our wonderful polygamous heritage,” but he was told that out of the question. Sort of tongue in cheek.

  11. The sociologist Rodney Stark’s work suggests that a religion’s “weirdness” is conducive to attracting converts. The historical growth of the LDS church compared with the RLDS church (which has been historically closer to mainstream) seems to bear that out. By seeking to appear more mainstream, the current LDS leadership may actually be undermining the church’s ability to attract converts.

  12. I would have to agree with Henrichsen on this idea that weirdness is something to be embraced and that it has in fact helped to keep us from being overlooked in society. Things that are strange are the things that often draw the biggest crowd and get people wondering and wanting to know more. I would also think that Polygamy is a test of faithfulness and that if you try to understand it beyond that then you are missing the mark. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55)

  13. I have to ditto the idea that the desire for normalcy comes out of hopes for worldly acceptance.

    And, we are actually not looking for people, who would shun the weirdness. Jesus said very clearly, that we must pick up our cross; the early Christians like Paul rejoiced for being deemed worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ. A candidate for conversion must not be too timid.

  14. I too haven’t made peace with polygamy. Few people have, I would guess. As far as weirdness, it should be noted that in the grand scope of human history and culture, polygamy is definitely not weird. It has been, overall, just as common if not more so than monogamy. Maybe, then, the common feeling of repulsion is a cultural blip in the big picture. It was weird for Christians of that time period. But then again, the Second Great Awakening birthed other weird marriage ideas, from absolute celibacy to the Oneidans, who practiced a sort of communal marriage. Protestants didn’t like that much either. I agree that the Lord likes to be a bit of an iconoclast sometimes in order to divide the faithful from the less so, but it seems like iconoclasm for its own sake isn’t the way he works. That said, I don’t know exactly what greater purpose was served by polygamy. Thanks for an interesting post.

  15. Roger, just curious about the ways in which you think the LDS leadership is seeking to be more mainstream. I don’t see it.

  16. Hi Ethan,

    My exact words were “appear more mainstream,” as opposed to be more mainstream. The church retained the Edelman PR firm to help craft a public image. They’ve managed media releases, press interviews, and meetings with politicians and other prominent persons.

    If you don’t see it, maybe they’re not getting their money’s worth 🙂

  17. Hi Roger,

    Gotcha, misinterpreted your meaning. Interesting thought you have.Every time period has its particular trends, and it seems like media attention often targets the ways we stand out. Perhaps the church feels a need to counteract that a little. Weirdness is prone to diminishing returns, so the bang for the weird buck doesn’t quite pack the same punch after a certain point. Isn’t Rodney Stark the fellow who use a market economic model to explain religious phenomenon? If that’s true, could a religion’s “weirdness” be equivalent to economic innovations that keep the cycle moving?

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