Plural Marriage and the Half-Empty-Glass School of Historiography
Plural Marriage and the Half-Empty-Glass School of Historiography
Reviewed by Allen L. Wyatt
Doing the Works of Abraham is the latest publication on the subject of plural
marriage by Carmon Hardy.1 Hardy is emeritus professor of history
at California State University, Fullerton, best known in Latter-day Saint
circles for his previous treatment of post-Manifesto polygamy in Solemn Covenant:
The Mormon Polygamous Passage.2
In many ways, Doing the Works of Abraham can be seen as a follow-up to
Solemn Covenant, but it should also be viewed as an expansion of that earlier book.
Whereas Solemn Covenant focused primarily on the post-Manifesto period
of polygamy (1890 to 1904), Doing the Works of Abraham is much more ambitious,
covering the entire expanse of polygamy among Latter-day Saints and schismatic groups (1830s through the
Consistent with the subtitle, Doing the Works of Abraham contains a wealth of information
on the “origin, practice, and demise” of plural marriage. The impressive
forty-two-page bibliography indicates that Hardy has pulled information from
a wide range of primary and secondary sources.4
Neutrality and Polygamy
Polygamy is a difficult issue for individuals who have spent their
lives in a modern monogamous society. For such individuals, examining nineteenth-century
polygamy is doubly difficult. The larger societal context of Victorian America
is foreign to the permissiveness of our day, and Latter-day Saint polygamy
is often viewed as morally aberrant. Working through such sociological and
moral differences presents a challenge that makes it difficult for a historian
to establish the emotional distance necessary to examine the topic.
In addition, decisions must be made by historians
about how they will approach a topic. Some of those decisions involve how
original sources will be used—what will be included, how they will be
presented, and what weight they will be given. Because a historian’s work
is inherently distillatory, it is impossible for such work to be neutral because
of the very decisions that are at the heart of the historian’s
The impossibility of historical neutrality is,
however, not recognized by all, and at times historians are themselves blind
to the subjective nature of the works they produce. The series editor, Will
Bagley, claims in his foreword that Hardy approaches the topic “with
a refreshing honesty, letting the people and facts speak for themselves”
(p. 16). Bagley seems unaware that texts do not speak for themselves.
There is always an act of judging and selecting. People cannot be heard in
Hardy’s pages without his choosing to give them voice, and the texts consulted
cannot speak without being selectively presented in a context of his own
Fortunately, Hardy doesn’t share Bagley’s apparent naÃ¯veté. The author-editor
states very plainly that he is “keenly aware that other historians would
have selected different themes and documents” and that they “would
sometimes have given different emphases” (p. 19). His goal in writing
Doing the Works of Abraham was “to present as full and balanced a
portrait of nineteenth-century polygamous Mormonism as possible.”
But he also grants that “the reader will encounter frequent passages of exploration and
suggestion” of his own (p. 19).
It is in these choices that Hardy made—that is, what is presented,
what is explored, and what is suggested—that the underlying bias can
be discerned, contra Bagley. To what conclusions
does the author-editor lead the reader, and along which path is the reader
led to those conclusions?
To date, most treatises on the topic of polygamy tend toward the
polemic, some more than others. Most of those who engage the subject—especially
when it comes to polygamy as once practiced by Latter-day Saints—invariably
become polemical either for or against the subject. For instance, Bagley,
in his foreword, slides into a comfortable polemical mode. He asserts that
nineteenth-century polygamy “hangs around the neck of the modern LDS
church like the ancient mariner’s albatross” and implies that polygamy
is still alive and well since the church “still quietly seals devout
widowers to additional wives” (p. 14).6
Knowing Bagley’s disdain for anything remotely positive associated
with Mormon polygamy, I did not count it as a harbinger of Hardy’s endeavors.
In his foreword, Bagley closes with appeals to the “human anguish behind
so much” of polygamy’s history. Bagley calls attention to those who “forfeited
so much for” the Principle and suggests how “compassionate reader[s]
will acquire a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices the devout made to practice
their religion” (p. 17). Once one moves beyond the foreword, though,
the negative harbinger struck by its author did not translate into reality.
For the most part, Hardy did a fine job of pulling together disparate sources
into an interesting mix. The majority of the book consists of long excerpts
from historical documents, presenting what Hardy views as the voices for and
against plural marriage. Hardy gives greater emphasis to negative voices,
both from practitioners of the Principle and those seeking its demise. Numerous
examples could be cited, but I will just mention a few to illustrate the point.
When Hardy discusses the effect that the official announcement and
open practice of polygamy had on the church and missionary efforts in Great
Britain, starting in August 1852, he begins by quoting the words of
T. B. H. Stenhouse that the announcement “fell like a thunderbolt . .
. and fearfully shattered the mission” (p. 80). No mention is made
that Stenhouse penned these words two decades after the fact, at a time when
he had already left the church.7
The quotation is from Rocky Mountain Saints, which was written by Stenhouse
to reflect the Godbeite position regarding leadership of the church. Portrayals
of Joseph Smith were sympathetic, but portrayals of Brigham Young (and anything
with which Brigham was involved) were not flattering. Young is generally portrayed
as “defiled by his ‘frenzied lust of power’ and his love of wealth”
and “corrupted by his faith.”8
In the footnote for the Stenhouse quotation, Hardy also cites a book
by Craig Foster about the same time period (p. 80 n. 15). However, Foster
had a different take on the effects of the announcement than Stenhouse. While
acknowledging some defections, Foster stated that “while there were a
number of apostasies in consequence of the announcement, most of the members
remained in the Church.”9
These divergent views may be a classic
example of considering a glass half empty or half full; Stenhouse recounts
a shattering of the mission, while Foster reports that most stayed true to
the church. The point is, however, that Hardy takes the “half-empty”
approach, indicating in the main body of the text that the picture within
Great Britain was bleak and that “hundreds left the church” because
of the announcement (p. 80). Having taken this approach, he chose to
subtly reference the “half-full” analysis in a footnote.
Another example of seeing the negative instead of the positive is
found in Hardy’s accounts of the difficulties faced by first wives during
the “rapid increase of plural marriages after [Joseph Smith’s] death
and the move west” (p. 162). Hardy cites, as examples, statements
by Mary Haskin Parker Richards and Helen Mar Whitney. While these two accounts
are accurate, they represent a conscious choice to again reference a half-empty
glass. Other accounts from the same period provide a different picture of
polygamy during the migration. For example, Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs
Smith Young stated the following about the early days of the exodus:
Arrived at Sugar Creek, we there first saw who were the brave, the
good, the self-sacrificing. Here we had now openly the first examples of noble-minded,
virtuous women, bravely commencing to live in the newly-revealed order of
“Women; this is my husband’s wife!”
Here, at length, we could give this introduction, without fear of
reproach, or violation of man-made laws, seeing we were bound for the refuge
of the Rocky Mountains, where no Gentile society existed, to ask of Israel,
“What doest thou?”10
While such later reflection could be easily dismissed by those predisposed
to do so, the view represents the other side of the same coin on which Hardy
seems to focus. As non-Mormon commentator William Chandless stated in 1857,
the “wretchedness of wives in Utah has been greatly exaggerated”
(p. 190). Hardy has exaggerated that focus as well, with his choice of
negative sources and their emphasis in preference to positive sources.
Pulling Probability out of Impossibility
Hardy insists that any effort “to fully understand historical
events must give respectful attention to the claims of actors involved”
(p. 32), yet he seems unable to give a full measure of that respectful
attention when it comes to firsthand accounts that attribute joy and happiness
to some polygamous marriages. Instead, he cavalierly dismisses such accounts:
“Mormon awareness that their marriage doctrine was an object of interest
to outsiders undoubtedly accounted for attestations by both male and female
Saints that their homes were happier than those found in monogamy” (p. 145).
With the firsthand accounts summarily dismissed, Hardy sees only
scenarios of bitterness and unhappiness in polygamous marriages. He views
such reports as more exemplary of the rule of the day. He prefaces several
largely negative accountings (pp. 146-60) with the introductory
remark that despite “all that was done to brightly clothe the Principle,
records exist that are filled with honest descriptions of polygamous practice”
(p. 146). It is disappointing that Hardy could find no positive accounts
that he could judge as “honest descriptions” of polygamous marriages.
Hardy praises the “inadvertent . . . candor” of a negative comment
(p. 163). It seems odd that he couldn’t locate any positive statements
that reflect “candor,” inadvertent or not. In still another place,
he makes “allowance” for the “excessively positive attitudes”
expressed by children of polygamous families (p. 172). Why? Perhaps because
such attitudes, in Hardy’s view, cannot possibly be true, and therefore must
One wonders if some future historian, called upon to examine monogamous
marriages of the early twenty-first century, could pen condemnation of the
entire marriage system. It should be easy—just find reports of unhappy
marriages, broken homes, and public condemnation. Any positive reports could
be summarily dismissed since they would be “undoubtedly” due to
outside interest and could be “excessively positive.”
Hardy states that “it is impossible to judge whether most men
and women were ‘happy’ in polygamy” (p. 184 n. 92), yet his selection
of sources and presentation of stories seems to indicate that he tries to
pull probability out of impossibility. In his words, “the emotional burdens
of those living the Principle, especially women, seem undeniably wounding”
(p. 184). Such a conclusion, coupled with his wholesale discounting or
dismissal of positive firsthand accounts, makes it hard to escape the conclusion
that Hardy has judged it impossible that the majority were happy.
Eugenic Plans and Wormwood
In some instances Hardy takes liberties with some of his sources.
For instance, in a section entitled “‘Take unto You Wives of the
Lamanites and Nephites': An Early Revelation on Polygamy?” (pp. 34-37),
he explores whether Joseph Smith authored a revelation “condoning plural relationships”
through intermarriage with Native American women (p. 35). The very title of the section, ending
as it does with a question mark, is consistent with Hardy’s warnings throughout
the section that “one must view the document cautiously” (p. 35).
Yet, just a few pages later, Hardy throws caution to the wind and
unequivocally proclaims that “as noted, [Joseph Smith’s] mind encompassed
eugenic plans to make American Indians ‘white and delightsome,’ as well as
Romantic visions of the hereafter” (p. 40). How one moves from caution
to certainty is unclear.
Another example of Hardy taking liberties with sources occurs in
the following passage:
Despite Young’s contention that intermarriage alone could transform the native race,
Mormon Elders were loath to answer the call. Some who did soon soured on the
enterprise, one saying of the Shoshones at Fort Supply that he “wouldn’t
give his horse to save all the d—d Indians from hell.” (p. 140)
The problem with the quoted statement is that it had nothing to do
with intermarrying with the Native Americans. Indeed, a full examination of
the source Hardy provides bears this out. It is from a journal of John Pulsipher,
recounting some of his experiences on a mission to the Shoshone Indians, at
Fort Supply, Wyoming territory. Here is the full quotation:
As this company of missionary boys were camped one night on Green River, while
talking of the best plan of keeping the horses from being stolen by the Indians—one
of the boys, who owned a fine horse, said he wouldn’t give his horse to save
all the d—d Indians from hell. That seamed a hard saying if it was in
fun. It was said by a Missionary that was sent to teach the poor Ignorant
Indians the way of salvation & we believe the Lord will not hold him guiltless
that will indulge in such sayings. Before leaving that camp the said favorite
horse got tangled in his rope & died. We thot this a warning to us
that we should not place our affection on any Earthly thing—or let it
hinder us from our duty to the Lord.11
The full story thus has nothing to do with intermarriage or souring
on intermarriage. In fact, the entire article from which this quotation is
pulled (some twenty-eight pages) never refers to marrying Native Americans.
Still another example regarding Hardy’s selection
of sources is his decision to include “the legend of Chris L. Christensen,”
as recounted by Juanita Brooks. This story is judged worthy of inclusion despite
the fact that it amounts “perhaps to no more than third-or-fourth-hand
hearsay” (p. 154) and is not supported by Christensen’s diary (p. 155
n. 13). Why include such a story? Hardy uses the story to illustrate the “openness
with which Mormon males could advertise themselves in the hunt for [plural]
wives” (p. 154). It would seem that Hardy should be able to provide
a better illustration of a point he is trying to make. Indeed, one wonders
if the point can stand at all on such a tenuous foundation.
In some cases Hardy is guilty of misrepresentation of sources. One
example occurs when he introduces a discussion about the difficulty that men
experienced in living the Principle: “Women were not alone in finding
polygamy difficult. Brigham Young’s statement that he often heard stories
of such bitterness about the practice that it was like ‘drinking a cup of
wormwood’ probably referred to male as well as female complaints” (p. 174).
One is left with the impression that people were complaining to Young about
the necessity of living in polygamous unions (“he often heard stories
. . . about the practice”). Yet, that is not what Young is referring
to, as can be seen from the full quotation:
If the Elders of Israel, who enjoy this privilege [of plurality], understood
it as it is in the bosom of eternity, they would not trifle with and abuse
it, and treat the blessings of the Lord lightly, as is too often the case.
How often am I called upon to hear tales of sorrow which are like bitterness
to my soul—like drinking a cup of wormwood. I hate this. God hates it.
He does not hate to have us multiply, increase, and replenish the earth; but
he hates for us to live in sin and wickedness, after all the privileges bestowed
upon us,—to live in the neglect of the great duties which devolve upon
us, notwithstanding the state of weakness and darkness in which the human
family lives. Burst that vail of darkness from your eyes, that you may see
things as they are.12
Contrary to Hardy’s assertion, the complaints and their bitterness
weren’t about the practice. Instead, the bitterness
was experienced by Young because of the sin and wickedness he saw as the root
of the sorrow in the tales he heard. Yet, that is not how Hardy characterized
Men, Women, and Marital Relations
Hardy also explores the purported relationship between men and women
in polygamous unions. His exploration is unfortunately one-sided, almost to
the point of caricature. For instance, Hardy discusses how polygamy provides
a framework for “patriarchal dominion” (pp. 122-25),
the subjugation of women as inherently inferior (pp. 125-29), and
sex within marriage solely for procreative purposes (pp. 130-40).
Since such views of women and the marital relationship were common in Victorian
society at large, it is odd that Hardy included such explorations in his
Indeed, throughout the entire nineteenth century, the whole legal
system was designed to recognize the rights of the husband at the expense
of the rights of the wife. It was almost universally held that when a man
and woman were married, her very being was subsumed within his and “covered”
by his legal standing. These laws, collectively referred to as provided a framework that most
today would view as repressive.
Certainly, patriarchy and misogyny were present in the legal culture as well as in the
words and worlds of judges. A nineteenth-century judge could always find
reasons, if wanted, why the wife before him in court was not recognizable
as a separate person from her husband, why her identity had been “covered
over” by his. And many judges, like many other men, believed, passionately
and adamantly, in a hierarchical, patriarchal order that they identified with
the law of marriage and with coverture.14
The common view of nineteenth-century Christians of any sect was
to relegate sexual relations within marriage solely to an act of procreation
and to consider the woman’s sexual needs and desires to be inferior to the
wasn’t until well into the last half of the twentieth century that American
society finally accepted that a married woman controlled her own body sexually,
even within marriage.16 Common nineteenth-century societal
beliefs about women can even be found in some of the non-Latter-day-Saint
quotations provided by Hardy elsewhere in Doing the Works of Abraham.
For example, James Bodell commented on the necessity of keeping “women under subjection”
and how hard that must be in polygamy (p. 209).
Since concepts of patriarchy, female inferiority, and the role of
sex weren’t uniquely Mormon or inherent to polygamy, how does their inclusion
in Doing the Works of Abraham shed
light on Mormon polygamy? Does their inclusion instead illuminate Hardy’s
views of polygamy? It would seem so, as he blatantly mischaracterizes the
“gender configuration” of polygamous families as “a single
male figure at the center of his kingdom with wives and children radiating
from him in worshipful dependence” (p. 125). Historical accounts
that would counter such a view are either ignored or buried in
Further, when commenting on the irony of women actually being ardent
supporters of the Principle, Hardy notes his feeling that the reasons were
“societal reinforcement, hierarchical household life, and religious teaching”
(p. 310 n. 15). Why he fails to accept the women’s statements at face
value—as a bona fide and acceptable statement of their personal beliefs—is
unclear. Is it possible for a woman to have a belief without it being the
result of external forces? In Hardy’s view of history, apparently not.
Concerning marital relations, I found the inclusion of the following
statement by Hardy to be odd: “The importance of offspring was stressed
constantly [by LDS leaders], and women who had large families, whether monogamous
or polygamous, were singled out for recognition” (p. 120). Hardy
states that such spotlighting wasn’t unique to polygamous families but also
applied to monogamous marriages. Was this statement included merely because
recognition to large families was provided? I wouldn’t think such recognition
would even raise an eyebrow since even today large families—particularly
those with triplets, quadruplets, sextuplets, or some other number of multiple
births—draw recognition in both television and print. The reality that
large or uniquely composed families have always been recognized by society
leads one to wonder why Hardy would consider such a statement to be worthy
of inclusion in Doing the Works of Abraham unless it was to somehow suggest that LDS leaders,
besides promoting a change in the nature of marriage, were somehow promoting
sexual productivity among the Saints. Even if this is so (and Hardy never
explicitly claims that), how would such an expectation be any different than
the command given by God to Adam and Eve to “multiply and replenish the
earth”—a command recognized and accepted by Christians and Jews
the world over?
When one compares the relationship between a man and one of his polygamous
wives, can Hardy point to any differences in the relationships of monogamous
marriages? It would seem not, as he provides no information, examples, or
stories to illustrate such differences. Indeed, the information he does provide
is applicable to monogamous marriages in Victorian America, just as much as
it is to polygamous marriages. So why did he include a discussion of marital
relations, if those relations in polygamous households didn’t differ materially
from relations in monogamous households of the day? Hardy points out that
practitioners of Mormon polygamy often spoke about it “in ways contemporary
Mormons would hesitate to own” (p. 109), so perhaps the argument
can be made that Hardy’s decision to include the information was a way for
him to accentuate the “foreignness” of plural marriage for his readers.
Yet, such an artificial accentuation is a disservice since it provides no
context by which the reader can really judge—it would seem that contemporary
Mormons would “hesitate to own” most nineteenth-century concepts
about marital relations, polygamous or not.
Trading in Husbands: Divorce in Mormondom
Of particular interest to me was Hardy’s reference to Zina Diantha
Huntington Jacobs Smith Young and how she was an example of leaving her husband
“for men of higher priesthood” (p. 182 n. 87). Hardy is not
the first to make such a suggestion, but, upon full examination, such a position
cannot be reasonably maintained. Hardy makes the suggestion in reference to
a statement by Brigham Young: “If a woman can find a man holding the
keys of the priesthood with higher power and authority than her husband, and
he is disposed to take her, he can do so, otherwise she has got to remain
where she is.”18
Young, within a few sentences, clarifies his statement
in a recapitulation, where he says the following: “If a woman claims
protection at the hands of a man possessing more power in the priesthood and
higher keys, if he is disposed to rescue her and has obtained the consent
of her husband to make her his wife, he can do so without a bill of
So it would seem that this method of gaining a divorce (finding one
with keys of a higher priesthood power) was only to be used if the woman “claims
protection.” Exactly what this means is not known, as this concept has
not been cited in any other extant source. It is important to note, however,
that the burden for pursuing a divorce in this manner rested squarely on the
woman; it was she who had to find the willing man with keys to a higher priesthood,
and she had to get permission from her present husband for the divorce and
Even though Hardy holds that Zina’s case is an example of this type
of divorce, such a scenario does not fit with what is known of her life. Young’s
1861 requirements for such a divorce and remarriage include finding a willing
priesthood holder with “higher keys” in the priesthood. Brigham
may have had the highest keys at the time of his marriage to Zina, but it
was generally understood that Joseph Smith—the person to whom Zina was
sealed prior to her sealing to Young—held “more power in the priesthood
and higher keys” than did Young. Thus, Zina’s agreement to be married
to Brigham does not seem to fit the requirements of this type of divorce.
It should also be noted that the concept of trading in one husband
for another, with the purpose of securing some semblance of salvation or exaltation,
was also condemned by church leaders in Zina’s day. President Jedediah M.
Grant stated the condemnation very clearly, fully five years before Young’s
I would be far from taking a woman that would leave a good man. A
woman that wants to climb up to Jesus Christ, and pass by the authorities
between her and him, is a stink in my nostrils. . . . there is a low, stinking
pride in a woman, that wants to leave a good husband to go to another. What
does it matter where you are, if you do your duty? Being in one man’s family
or the other man’s family is not going to save you, but doing your duty before
your God is what will save you.
. . . Shall a man be saved because of some particular Quorum to which
he belongs, or a woman be saved because she is in some particular family?
No, that is foolery. Men and women are saved because they do right. It is
nonsense for a woman to suppose, that because she is sealed to some particular
man she will be saved.20
Hardy’s suggestion that Zina was an example of somehow “trading
up” in her marriages just doesn’t make sense. A better fit is that Zina’s
marriage to Young was an example of a modern application of levirate
Hostility among Cattle Watchers
Hardy describes how the non-Mormon public felt that polygamy must
change or cease: “There were others, however, observers neither hostile
toward nor persuaded by the Saints, who disapproved of Mormon polygamy and
warned that they must change if they wished to remain in the republic”
(p. 210). It is unclear how Hardy fails to see “hostility”
in the words of Samuel Bowles, one of his two non-Mormon commentators. Indeed,
Bowles seems quite hostile toward Mormons. For example, Bowles comments on
how “the greatness of a true Mormon is measured . . . by the number of
wives he can keep in . . . obedient subjugation” (p. 210). Not content
to leave such nonhostility ambiguous, he comments that “handsome women
and girls, in fact, are scarce among the Mormons of Salt Lake” (p. 211).
Perhaps the most acerbic commentator given voice by Hardy, however,
is Mary Katherine Keemle Field. Hardy reprints nearly three pages of her ruminations
about Mormons. Among her comments is this priceless gem:
Looking down on that congregation [in the Tabernacle], I understood why the church
held its sway. There were thousands of human beings, ranging from infancy
to extreme old age; there were bodies and no brains. All were clothed with
bad taste, when there was an attempt at more than decent covering; all looked
foreign, and not one pleasing face could I discern, apart from a few of the
young Saints born in Zion. The vast majority were cattle on two legs—obedient,
subservient cattle, not to be blamed for being themselves. (p. 217)
While such bigotry might find acceptance as part of a mission statement
for several modern-day anti-Mormon ministries, one must wonder how such sentiments
help anyone better understand the “origin, practice, and demise”
of Mormon polygamy.
Confusing Obedience and Polygamy
Hardy, like others who examine Mormon polygamy, focuses on how people
were coerced to practice the Principle. Indeed, he affirms that “claims
that polygamy was . . . not essential for the highest reward in heaven, ignore
a large body of teachings to the contrary” (pp. 111-12). What
such assertions fail to recognize is that it was not polygamy that was required
for the “highest reward” but obedience to God’s command. Polygamy
isn’t the issue; obedience is. Polygamy was simply the command, and it has
always been true among those professing to follow God that when they are satisfied
that he has commanded, it is incumbent upon them to obey.
This principle of obedience is not unique to Mormonism; it is found
in many religious traditions. If one chooses not to obey God’s command—even
when those commands are inconvenient or unpopular—then one does so at
the peril of one’s salvation. The words of Elder Joseph F. Smith are to the
point in this matter: “I understand the law of celestial marriage to
mean that every man in this church, who has the ability to obey and practice
it in righteousness and will not, shall [be] damned, I say I understand it
to mean this and nothing less, and I testify in the name of Jesus that it
does mean that.”22
Even though Hardy includes this as part of a larger discourse by
Joseph F. Smith (pp. 113-14), he does so in a section of his book
entitled “‘No Exaltation without It':
Importance of the Doctrine.” In doing so, he fails to recognize the true
issue at point and promulgates an improper view of the issue: that it was
somehow polygamy that ensured salvation, rather than obedience that is salvific.
This concept is also echoed in more detail by George Q. Cannon:
No woman can enter into the celestial kingdom any more than a man whose will
is in opposition to the will of God. When God speaks all must submit to it.
It may not be pleasant to us; it may come in conflict with our traditions;
it may not be that which will suit us if we had the choosing. There are a
great many things which would not suit us if we had the choosing, according
to our natural feelings, for these are often far from correct. But whatever
feelings we may have which may be the result of tradition and false education,
we must get rid of and be willing to do that which God requires at our hands.
And it is the experience of the women of this Church who have done that—I
speak now of plural marriage, for that is one of the most trying things—those
who have submitted to this order, have reached a point where they enjoy true
happiness, because in sacrificing their own will they have the consciousness
of knowing that they have done the will of God; and in their supplications
to Him they can ask Him in confidence for such blessings as they stand in
need of. Where is the man or the woman who has been diligent in observing
the requirements of God, who has failed upon any point upon which he has sought
earnestly to God? If there are any, there must be something lacking, they
have not that claim upon God which they would have if they had submitted perfectly
to the requirements made of them.23
Quotations throughout Doing the Works of Abraham
provide evidence that it is obedience that is being
preached, yet Hardy never draws the distinction for the reader. The logical
reality of such a distinction is evidenced by the fact that those who perished
as faithful Saints prior to the institution of plural marriage were assured
of their eternal reward the same as those who later practiced the Principle
and remained faithful. In addition, those who have left this life since the
discontinuance of polygamy likewise have the assurance that their salvation
is assured, provided they were obedient to God’s commands during their lifetime.
The idea that God can change his commands from time to time is also not unique
to Mormonism. Numerous religious traditions adhere to various tenets based
on whether they believe that God commanded something or rescinded some ancient
Obedience to God’s command, with a willing heart, has always been
treated as a requisite virtue for salvation. It shows a regrettable lack of
understanding that Hardy uses historical sources to almost cast plural marriage
as a “saving ordinance,” when it never was any such thing. Stating
that “without plural marriage” one cannot attain salvation (p. 112
n. 2) is different from pointing out that for those living at the time, it
may rather have been that obedience to God’s command of plural marriage was
required for exaltation.
Critics of the Latter-day Saints have found much to condemn in plural
marriage. They may find within Hardy’s latest offering additional ammunition
for their broadsides.25 Hardy fails to come to grips with
why Joseph Smith would institute a marital system that was diametrically opposed
to and essentially abhorred by the Victorian establishment of the day.
Most, of course, assume it was for sexual gratification and
power.26 However, the argument can
easily be made that Joseph already
had power and that changing marital systems was destructive to that power
and eventually led to the forfeiture of his life. Religious leaders throughout
history have had no problem commanding and receiving sex without overhauling
the basic familial relationships of their societies. Kathleen Flake likewise
sees the critics’ assessment of Joseph’s motivations as too facile:
Do I think Smith’s revelations on polygamy can be reduced to his sex drive? No,
I don’t. . . . It’s too simplistic; we all know this. There are so many easier
ways to satisfy our sex drive than to have many marriages—at least at
one time. Now, maybe serially, but having many marriages at one time seems,
to me, to be the least rational way to satisfy one’s sex
It would have been so much easier for Joseph and other early Latter-day
Saint leaders to exercise their libidos through the socially acceptable means
of the day, without the need to resort to a wholesale change of everything
society did accept. Joseph and thousands
of others would never have pursued such a course without a genuine belief
that obedience to the Principle was divinely instituted and mandated—unless,
of course, one dismisses the ability of Providence to require such behavior.
It seems unfortunate that Hardy chooses, in his words, to present, explore,
and suggest (p. 19) information valuable to critics without presenting,
exploring, or suggesting why those critics’ most long-held condemnations don’t
seem reasonable when compared to the actual record.
This review should not be taken as a wholesale rejection of Doing
the Works of Abraham. Hardy’s efforts should not be
minimized; there is much that is excellent in his book. Unfortunately, some
elements will be used by the polemical naysayers to misstate the historical
record and to continue to cast Mormon polygamy in the worst light possible.
For this reason I do not suggest this book as an introductory primer to polygamy.
I am not sure that such a book has been written, but I have great hopes that
it will be in the future.28 I agree wholeheartedly with this
statement in Hardy’s afterword: “For those who study it, however, Mormonism’s
brave adventure with plural marriage, including its modern reversal and flight
from the practice, is an instructive subject. As with all historical inquiry,
revisiting the topic enlarges humane sensibility and tolerance” (p. 392).
It is my hope that when scholars examine plural marriage in the future, they will create works
that don’t accentuate the negative at the expense of the faith exemplified
by those who practiced the Principle.
1 This is another in the Kingdom in the West series,
published by the Arthur H. Clark Company.
2. B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous
Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
3. It includes
some cursory information—less than ten pages—on polygamy as practiced
by Mormon schismatic groups since the practice of plural marriage ceased in
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
4. The bibliography
alone is an important contribution to anyone interested in studying the history
of plural marriage as practiced by Mormons in the nineteenth century.
5. For an excellent
discussion of the impossibility of historical neutrality, see Peter Novick,
That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the
American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
6. Perhaps Bagley’s
zeal can be understood since he freely admits his bias regarding Mormon polygamy.
Quoting Robert N. Baskin, an anti-Mormon, Bagley agrees with what he calls
“hardboiled realism”—”that if Joseph Smith had been a
eunuch he would never have received the revelation on polygamy” (p. 16).
Stenhouse’s break with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was
precipitated, at least in part, by the decision of Zina Priscinda Young, daughter
of Brigham and Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, to marry one of
her father’s office clerks (Thomas Williams) instead of Stenhouse. He took
this refusal of Young to become his third wife as a slap in the face by her
father and, thereafter, found himself more and more at odds with him.
8. Ronald W. Walker,
“The Stenhouses and the Making of a Mormon Image,”
Journal of Mormon History 1 (1974): 68.
9. Craig L. Foster, Penny Tracts and Polemics: A Critical
Analysis of Anti-Mormon Pamphleteering in Great Britain, 1837-1860 (Salt
Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2002), 153.
10. Zina D. Young, in Edward W. Tullidge, The Women
of Mormondom (New York: Tullidge & Crandall, 1877), 327.
11. Juanita Brooks, “From the Journal of John Pulsipher,”
Utah Humanities Review 2/4 (1948): 359.
12 Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses
8:63. This and other historical quotations herein appear with original spelling,
capitalization, and punctuation.
13. Hardy, in an
offhand manner, states that the “Saints were thoroughly Victorian in
outlook” (p. 145) but fails to connect those Victorian outlooks
with their approaches to marriages of any type, be they monogamous or polygamous.
14. Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 4.
15. A fascinating
examination of marriage in various religious traditions can be found in John
Witte Jr., From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the
Western Tradition (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
16. Nancy F. Cott,
Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 211-12.
17 For example,
the nonuniversality of any patriarchal view of the inferiority of women is
never addressed, except inadvertently in a footnote. Hardy recounts a comment
by Lucinda Lee Dalton in which she “bemoaned” feelings of superiority
by some men (p. 165), but then tells in a footnote how she was able to
marry a man who didn’t hold those feelings (p. 165 n. 48). The mere fact
that such a man could be found should provide evidence that attitudes of male
superiority, while they may have been the Victorian norm, were not universal.
A footnote on the same page (p. 165 n. 51) comments on the “irony”
that women in polygamous marriages “often enjoyed greater independence
from their husband’s control than in monogamy.” The irony would seem
to be that Hardy doesn’t view such information, which is contradictory to
his caricature of polygamous relationships, as worthy of exploring in the
main body of the text.
18. Brigham Young Addresses, 1860-1864:
A Chronological Compilation of Known Addresses of the Prophet Brigham Young,
vol. 4, comp. Elden J. Watson, March 1980, p. 2 (Special Collections, Harold
B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University). Watson references this particular
sermon as “HDC, ms d 1234, Box 49 fd 8 SLC Tabernacle, October 8th, 1861,
19. Brigham Young Addresses,
20. Jedediah M. Grant, in Journal of Discourses 4:128.
21 For more information
on the marriages of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, see Allen
L. Wyatt, “Zina and Her Men: An Examination of the Changing Marital State
of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young,” at
(accessed 11 October 2007).
Delivered by Elder Jos. F. Smith, in the Tabernacle, Sunday morning, July
7, 1878,” reported by Geo. F. Gibbs, Deseret News Weekly
27/32 (11 September 1878), 499.
23. George Q. Cannon, in Journal of Discourses,
22:126-27. Thanks to Greg Smith for bringing this quotation to my attention.
24. For example,
there are many instances in the Bible where God gives “everlasting commands”
that have yet to be rescinded (e.g., Genesis 17:9-14; Exodus 12:14,
24-27; Leviticus 16:34). I know of few Christian religious traditions
whose adherents lose sleep over not following such divine edicts. Either the
Bible was in error in recording them as everlasting commands, or God has changed
his mind and no longer requires compliance with such commands. Is one to believe
that God cannot similarly change his will relative to how marriages should
25. For instance,
series editor Will Bagley comments on how Hardy’s work speaks to “the
joys and evils of polygamy” (p. 17), seemingly oblivious to the
fact that both could be just as easily found in an examination of any marital
26. It was, for
example Fawn Brodie’s contention that “there was too much of the Puritan
in [Joseph], and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin
and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on
marriage.” Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History:
The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet 2nd ed. (New York: Knopf, 1986), 297.
27. “The Origins
of Polygamy—1843,” chap. 10 in The Mormons.
Originally aired on PBS as part of American Experience, 30 April
2007, and also viewed on www.pbs.org/mormons/view/ on 15 October 2007.
28. Perhaps the
book that comes closest to being a good introductory primer on the topic is
Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System,
1840-1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001). Her approach, tone,
and tenor have a more balanced feel than what Hardy has achieved in Doing
the Works of Abraham.