My History With Polygamy

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A few years ago when the history of polygamy in the Mormon Church once again became a hot topic (think HBO’s series Big Love), two of my daughters asked me why they had not heard of the practice growing up in our home in southern California? Why, they asked, did I never mention it to them? After all, I was a full time religion teacher with the Mormon Church’s Educational System.

Fair enough.

There are two possible answers.

One, I thought it was a practice halted in the early 1890’s, and was no longer of any concern. To me it was an idiosyncratic practice that came and went. It laid no claim on me or my family. If it did, I would have opted out.

Two, and most importantly, while I was growing up, I never heard any talk of polygamy in my family. I’ve concluded that the reason for this was that polygamy was never practiced by my Danish great grandparents and grandfather who came to America in 1873 after having joined the church in Denmark. My grandfather was Jens Peter Nielsen who was born in Norre Tvede, Praesto, Denmark. He was ten when he and his parents migrated to Utah.

Records indicate that Europeans were not taught the principle of plural marriage (polygamy) during their conversion process. Studies differ as to how much general knowledge from newspapers and such to which Europeans may have been exposed. But most accounts agree on this: Europeans were put off by the practice, and that included those who ended up migrating to Utah.

I’ve concluded that from 1847 to 1890 two distinct groups of Mormons were formed in Utah. The first group was composed of those who came across the plains from Illinois to the Great Salt Lake Basin and the second group was made up of those who came across the ocean from Europe to the Utah Territory. I will refer to these two groups from this point on as the American Mormons and the European Mormons respectively.

American Mormons were led by Brigham Young who was taught about polygamy (in secret) by Joseph Smith. Three years after Smith’s death in 1844, Young led these pioneers westward. In 1852, five years after settling in the Utah Territory, Young went public and admitted that Mormons were practicing polygamy.

On the other hand, European Mormons began migrating to the Utah Territory in the early 1850’s. They came to be part of the American dream and America’s newest religious force. They believed in the restoration of Christ’s Church under the direction of a prophet. For several decades these European Mormons were partially separated from the American Mormons by a language barrier, and created a successful European culture, e. g., “Little Denmark”.

The American Mormons were living under a theocracy. The European Mormons were living under a more moderate Mormon religion based on the idea of a restored gospel and preparing for the second coming.

Many American Mormons (20-25%) practiced polygamy; most of the European Mormons (90%) did not. There is evidence that some European single women married Mormon missionaries and migrated to Utah. If these women did not know they would be entering polygamous marriages, it speaks poorly of the practices of the Church at that time.

The American Mormons were radicalized by the teachings of polygamy, along with other heavy practices such as blood atonement and the oath of vengeance. As a result fear entered into the equation of the everyday lives of American Mormons. Not only were they concerned about outside forces coming in to harm them, they were afraid of inside forces that might do the same if they did not conform to the Church’s leadership. It was apparent that a radical theocracy had been created under the leadership of Brigham Young.

The European Mormons probably saved the Church. They were anything but radical. They saw the great hope of coming to the land of opportunity and receiving support from their new religion. The information they received from Mormon periodicals and letters described Utah as an “Eden” like environment. It seems that the main reason Danish Mormons, for example, emigrated to America was because the leadership of the Church strongly encouraged them to do so. They were participating in the gathering of Israel and would be participating in building Zion and preparing for the second coming of the Savior.

Ironically, not much has changed today, except that 70% of all Mormons are no longer associated with the Church. (Not that there wasn’t a great fallout in the early years of Joseph Smith, there was.)

Anyway, as I see it today there are presently two general groups of Mormons that conform generally to the above two American and European groups of Mormons.

The first group, like the radical American Mormons, is conservative socially and politically today. They believe polygamy will be lived in heaven. They believe all that Joseph Smith uttered was doctrinal. They believe they are the one and only true Church, and that anyone who speaks critically of any aspect of the Church or its leadership is anti- Mormon.

By contrast, presently the second group, similar to early European Mormon sensibilities, seems to be of a more moderate temperament. They do not hold to the sanctity of polygamy. They do not believe that polygamy is an eternal doctrine; hence hold a more pragmatic view of what prophetic utterances mean and how they should be implemented.

So, to my family, I say, I didn’t speak about polygamy because my Danish relatives didn’t practice it, were not taught it, and were probably horrified when they reached Utah and found out it was practiced. They were probably the forerunners of the modern Church that you see today.

One time in June 1964, while attending the mission training center in Salt Lake City, President Hugh B. Brown of the Church’s First Presidency spoke to us. He asked all the missionaries who had a polygamous heritage to stand. Close to a third of the room of 200 stood up. He said that’s proof that the existence of polygamy as taught by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young was successful. I asked myself, “what are the rest of us then?” I didn’t appreciate his comment. For one, such as President Brown, who valued the feelings of the individual, he discounted a lot of us. OUR presence was evidence that polygamy wasn’t necessary. But who wants to get into an argument over an issue that has been ABANDONED and will not return.

But, to my dismay, it does return in sinister little ways. It’s 1994 and the day of my second daughter’s marriage in the Salt Lake Temple. Just before the sealing and marriage, her future husband tells her she will be living the law of plural marriage in the celestial kingdom. My daughter was stunned. She had never heard of such a bizarre teaching.

After the marriage and at a family gathering, the subject came up again. This time my daughter resisted, at which time her mother- in- law told her to “stop complaining and get used to it.” Unfortunately, my wife and I were living in Santiago, Chile at the time. I was serving as mission president for the Church. We were strongly discouraged by the Church from coming home for such things as marriages of our children. I have always felt bad about this. I was not there to give a hard check to such tasteless and false ideas as were uttered by her future husband and mother-in-law. When my daughter needed me most, I was absent.

To top matters off, after several years of marriage, her husband filed for divorce. After the divorce he contacted my daughter and told her he was going to marry again, and, according to his bishop, had to inform her in order to ensure she was fine with his second marriage. That’s when the next shocker happened. He told her that she would always be the first wife in the eternities when plural marriage was once again lived.

As my daughter and I discussed this surreal experience, I was blunt, “perverted ideas lead to perverted interpretations which lead to perverted exchanges.”

She married shortly after that encounter and gave birth to two of the cutest little children for which a dotting grandfather could ask.