When I look upon the faces of my strong, proud and handsome Mormon great-grandmothers (Lucy Lodica Elmer and Mary Rosetta Patterson), only their eyes tell of their great suffering, loneliness and anguish. The cause? The Mormon doctrine of polygamy or “plural marriage” as it is sometimes referred to.
Before we start you should probably know that I am not Mormon nor do I have any plans of ever becoming one – in fact, I reject the doctrine completely. I think it would be advantageous to the reader if I gave a brief history of the Mormon sect and how it came into existence:
This sect was formed in New York in 1827 by self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Smith who claimed that he received a visit from the “angel Moroni,” who gave him some “golden plates inscribed with symbols,” which Smith then translated into the Book of Mormon. Volumes could be written about Joseph Smith, but suffice it to say, that he was shot to death by an angry mob while in a jail cell in Illinois. After Joseph Smith’s death, the sect split into two distinct groups – the group that my ancestors were a part of, elected a “new prophet,” Brigham Young, and headed west across the great plains to Utah. This became known as “the great Mormon migration.” The practice of polygamy within the Mormon religion once again got it’s start when old Joseph Smith claimed to have received a revelation in July of 1831 that Mormon men could practice “plural marriage.” This revelation would later be published in the Mormon’s “Doctrine and Covenants.” Interestingly, the doctrine is still in place and can be found in their canonized scripture to this day.
During Joseph Smith’s life, polygamy was practiced, however, it was kept “secret” because, of course, it was illegal. Not only was it kept secret from the authorities – it was initially kept secret from his first wife and the church breathern as well….hmmmmm. Once in Utah the sect practiced “open” plural marriage and thus they began to experience life in large “plural” family groups. Many of the biographies that I have received that pertain to my female Mormon ancestors paint a very inspiring picture – a picture of women that struggled together with their husbands and “sister-wives” to overcome great obstacles and challenges – who lived out their picture perfect lives – and then went on to their celestial reward.
Even in the best of circumstances, this lifestyle seemingly would have been excruciating. The struggle must have been constant with polygamous husbands giving great attention to favored wives and disregarding a less favored one; limited access to a husband’s time, resources and emotional support; jealousy among the wives; squabbles among the children; attempts to deal with sexual issues; fighting; and general chaos. The problems seem too numerous to count. As my own husband so sweetly stated, “Who could deal with more than one wife.” In the records and biographies, it has been well-documented that many “plural” wives were very intelligent, resourceful and capable women – I thus find this whole arrangement very distasteful – and it honestly makes my skin crawl.
Out of my four ggg-grandfathers, two of them practiced polygamy:
Elias Gardner married: Harriet Snow; Amy Pitchard (my ggg-grandmother); Betsy Elizabeth Markham; Diantha Hanchett; Ellen Elizabeth Abbott; Ruth Markham; Annie Elizabeth England; Martha Todd; and Annie Ann Abbott – that’s nine wives and about 40 children.
Alvis Houston Patterson married: Martha Fillmore (my ggg-grandmother); Pricilla Harding Taylor; and Fannie Maude Carline – that’s three wives and about 20 children.
Out of my two gg-grandfathers, both practiced polygamy:
John Henry Spencer married: Jerusha Kibbe Elmer and Lucy Lodica Elmer (my gg-grandmother) – that’s two wives and about 24 children.
Henry Erastus Gardner married Emma M. Moesser and Mary Rosetta Patterson (my gg-grandmother) – that two wives and about 24 children.
Mercifully, and due to the fact that Utah wanted statehood, the Mormons “officially” discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890.
“What is your opinion of Mormon polygamy as a religious tenant?,” was asked of an eminent divine, upon his return from a visit to Utah, where he had spent several weeks investigating the system, with eyes, ears and heart wide open. “It may be good enough for a certain class of men,” was the reply, “but for the women, it is a damnable doctrine. Religion was designed by the Creator to satisfy that longing for infinite good and purity, which exists, in some degree, in every human soul; its mission is to elevate and purify mankind, and a system which tends to degrade any portion of humanity is but a libel upon the sacred name of religion. The best resources of our language cannot supply me with strong enough terms in which to denounce this infamous doctrine of the Mormon Creed!” The corner-stone of polygamy is the degradation of woman, and it can flourish only where she is regarded and treated as a slave – and whatever degrades woman, degrades man also. Excerpts from Women of Mormonism – The Story of Polygamy – as told by the victims themselves and edited by Jeannie Anderson Froiseth – 1886.
It is not my intention with this post to instigate a discussion on the doctrines of Mormonism. My focus is the effect that polygamy had on the women and children of these families. I will write further as I learn more about these courageous, if not misguided, women. To learn more about polygamy and Mormonism in general – I found this blog very interesting and straightforward –