This morning, as I got online as usual, I found a little note from one of my girlfriends (I’m always happy to hear from her, as she tends toward being quiet-ish; more especially since things seem to be going really well for her lately). She wrote to remind me that she’s been reading The 19th Wife, and said when she’s done, she thinks she’ll have some questions for me.
Let me just say, for anyone who doesn’t know, that I *love* answering questions about my religion. I realize that there’s a lot of information (and misinformation) out there about the LDS church, and I love that people feel comfortable coming to me to find out my point of view. I live in Idaho, where everyone knows a Mormon or ten, and being a member of the church is kinda no big deal. I think people here get that, even though there are a few everyday things that we don’t do like everyone else, we’re pretty normal.
In other parts of the country and the world, though, I’m starting to realize that because we’re so few and far-between, we’re viewed with differing degrees of fascination and skepticism. Which is cool–I feel the same way about religions and cultures that are less familiar to me.
Anyway, back to my friend. I know she’ll have questions coming for me, and I have no idea what this book is about, other than its obvious link to polygamy. I thought about reading the book so I could answer my buddy’s questions more specifically, but I’ve discovered it’s chock-full of swearing. I hate that, so I think I’ll skip it this time.
The interesting thing that came out of my reading about Ann Eliza Young and her petition for divorce from Brigham Young really doesn’t have anything to do with the case, itself. Instead, I found myself contemplating on the practice of polygamy and my own feelings about it.
It’s a hard thing, explaining the idea of polygamy to other people. It seems weird, especially in the culture we live in today. Look at the fundamentalist polygamists over in Texas last year–they’re a mess, right? I mean, seriously, freakishly odd. They’re dressing like pioneers, cutting off all contact with the outside world, and kicking their teenaged boys off the farm as soon as they seem interested in girls. What the heck?!
And yet, how much different does 19th-century polygamy, viewed in light of how we live now, seem to others? Like I said, it’s a hard thing to explain.
It’s a bridge I had to cross about 15 years ago–deciding what I thought of a practice that seemed anathema to all I wanted from life. When we’re girls, most of us dream of growing up and getting married; of finding that Prince Charming and knowing we’ll live happily ever after. Most of us don’t throw another wife and her kids into the mix. Right? Of course not.
I remember asking my mom what she thought of the whole thing. Her answer made a lot of sense to me. “Well, honey?” she mused, “It’s not something I would ever want to live. I don’t want to share my husband with anyone. If I were asked to, I’d have to do a lot of thinking and praying about it.” No kidding, Mom. No kidding. I can’t imagine trying to make that decision myself. Gack. It was the final portion of her answer, though, that really caused me to ponder. “But in the end,” she said, “if I felt it was the right thing to do, I’d probably do it.”
The right thing to do. Is it ever? Consider, for a moment, the circumstances under which polygamy was originally instituted. The members of the church, mainly the men, had been beaten, tarred and feathered, jailed, and even murdered. Families were forced en masse from their homes a number of times. Such circumstances left so many families fatherless, with no one to provide money or food by which they could survive. It seems natural, under these conditions, that some provision would be made to care for the scores of destitute widows and children living within the transient community. These days, we have a huge Church-wide welfare system that cares for members in need. But if even the more wealthy members of the church are being forced from their properties, usually without remuneration, and having to leave behind nearly everything, how exactly does one set up a fund? It’s kinda hard to pool extra money to help the needy when most people’s major assets have been revoked entirely.
And so, under what we believe was revelation, the practice of polygamy was instituted. Keep in mind that the idea, here, was not for people to just marry whomever they wanted, willy-nilly. The Prophet (at the time, Joseph Smith), who was the leader of the church and the steward of those under his care, would select certain families and ask them to enter into polygamous marriages, usually specifying the woman or family he felt needed extra care. Also remember that these families, on both sides, were both allowed and asked to pray and seek out an answer about these pairings for themselves. Some said no. Some, including the Prophet’s wife, Emma Smith, even railed for a time against the idea. I don’t blame her. It’d freak me out, too. I can see myself throwing a grade-A fit, in fact. But in the end, Emma decided it was, again, “the right thing to do.”
Now, did everyone live the law as instituted? No. There were plenty of men who decided to take authority upon themselves and take up with whomever they darned well pleased. There are rumored to be reports of some who forced the situation upon the women they chose. It’s a disturbing idea, but I don’t deny that it’s possible. I know that in any given group, there will be outliers, and certainly not everyone–even today–tries to live within the spirit of any given law. I’ve encountered a leader, here and there, who’s a little drunk with power. People come in all shapes, and some of them are control freaks. Seriously. (Luckily, thus far, I’ve been strong-willed enough to tell people where they can stuff it. I know what this gospel requires of me–and what it so doesn’t.) Even Lorenzo Snow, years after the edict to end the practice of polygamous marriages, had to chastise and, ultimately, excommunicate those who just didn’t give a rat’s patootie what the Prophet said–they were going to go on living as they pleased.
So I can see how polygamy got itself a bad name. Sure, it’s peculiar. Worse, in the extreme cases. And still: it’s not something I’d like to go out and adopt. Just because I can understand it doesn’t mean I want to run out and join up. For that matter, those who decide to take up the practice these days are excommunicated from the church, and the fundamentalist groups who have practiced it for decades have long since been detached from Mormonism–most have never been members of our church at all. So obviously, it’s not something I’m being asked to do, anyway. And I can’t imagine that it’ll ever be an issue for me. But it’s important to know how one feels about a topic that isn’t going away. Ultimately, I agree with my mother. If I were asked? I’d do what I felt was right. But for now? I’m glad it’s not an issue.