Friday, December 03, 2004

Long live the Blog!

I've checked the blog everyday for the past week hoping that someone would have put a new post up-- but alas! It has been stagnant. Cold. Dark. I know everyone is probably crazy busy with the holidays coming up, tying up loose ends for the year, etc. But blog we must, or the blog will go bust. I decided to throw up (as in post, not vomit) a brief paper I wrote on polygamy at the beginning of the semester. Here it is...

_Plural Views on Plural Marriage_

In Nancy Cott’s treatment of the historical development of the ways in which the institutions of ‘marriage’ and ‘the state’ reciprocally shaped one another, she spends a great deal of time discussing Mormon polygamy. She focuses her analysis on explicating why 19th century law-makers found polygamy abhorrent. She pays lip service to giving the reader a view of the counterclaims to this argument, citing the assertion of period legal thinkers such as Justice Frank Murphy that polygamy is “a form of marriage built upon a set of social and moral principles and ought to be recognized as such.”[1] However, she does not probe deeply enough into the mechanics of Mormon polygamy to give her readers adequate knowledge to assess for themselves polygamy’s value as a social arrangement. By merely glossing polygamy, Cott fails to show her readers that the claims of 19th century anti-polygamists—specifically as regarded slavery, republican integrity, and Christianity—all stood on extremely shaky ground. Exploring these claims reveals a more complete picture of history.

Cott explains how 19th century lawmakers viewed Mormon women as being “much like slaves.”[2] She shows that Mormon women themselves did not agree with this assessment, as represented by their pro-polygamy demonstrations.[3] However, Cott falls short in her duties as a historian to explicate adequately why Mormon women felt this way; to explain what about the foundational principles of Mormon polygamy made it, in Mormon women’s mind, utterly distinct from slavery. A key section of the 1843 revelation to Joseph Smith inaugurating polygamy states:
And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any
man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the
first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they
are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified…[4]
If the first wife did not consent to have her husband take a second wife, then he was not allowed to do it. In addition, adultery carried with it the severe spiritual ramification of damnation.[5] Far from being a loose, ad hoc arrangement in which a slave master could sleep with whomever he chose without their consent, Mormon polygamy was based on consent and was strictly regulated. Without understanding these points about the nature of Mormon polygamy, readers are left without a ground for comparison in how to evaluate the slavery rhetoric of the 19th century anti-polygamists.

In addition to the argument on slavery, Cott also explains that the works of Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu created a precedent in Western thinking for associating “polygamy with despotism.”[6] Cott does not explore the counterargument that polygamy can, in fact, be more conducive to republican government than monogamy. As shown in the Smith citation above, a Mormon man gained his right to govern multiple wives only through the consent of the governed. In addition, since men governed their families solely by virtue of the priesthood, which they held only by a continuous vow to obey the laws of the priesthood itself,[7] men were only able to govern by obedience to a higher law than they themselves. Contrast this with 19th-century monogamous husbands, who governed however they saw fit and were rarely subject to legal interference from the state into their families.[8] Mormons also liberally granted divorce,[9] as opposed to the strict anti-divorce laws of mainstream monogamous America. With these facts in consideration, it is difficult to see just how a polygamous man—who rules in subjugation to a higher law, by the consent of governed persons who can freely divorce him—is more prone to despotism than a monogamous man, who rules women who cannot divorce him, predominantly according to his own whims. By leaving out this contrary perspective, Cott sends her readers away from the issue with an incomplete understanding of the reality that polygamy and monogamy can both be reasonably argued to promote republicanism or despotism. Her omission inevitably distorts perception.

Underlying both of the above issues of slavery and republicanism is the issue of the rhetorical invocation of monogamous Christianity as the underpinning for Western civilization. Cott sites Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley’s claim that polygamy was “contrary to the spirit of Christianity and of the civilization which Christianity has produced in the Western world.”[10] Cott fails to mention a historic paradox that makes Bradley’s position philosophically untenable. For 19th century Mormons, the argument was simple. Jesus Christ was “a fruit of polygamy”[11]–a descendent of Abraham, who the Old Testament records as having been polygamously married to Sara and Hagar.[12] From these marriages, and from the polygamous marriages of Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, all of Israel sprang. To hold that Christianity somehow cosmically condemned for all time the institution of polygamy would, in a Kantian sense, defy pure reason, for it would eliminate the very marriages that gave birth to its founder; indeed it would eliminate all of Israel, and with it, Christianity itself.

All three of the above points on polygamy as it relates to slavery, republican government and Christianity provide any reader with a much needed other side of the story, thereby enriching their overall comprehension of the controversies surrounding 19th century Mormon polygamy. By failing to include these views, Cott, whether advertently or inadvertently, biases her readers understanding of Mormon polygamy. Without understanding both sides of any debate on a matter of historical controversy, a student doesn’t truly understand the controversy, or the historical period surrounding it, at all.
[1] Cott, Nancy. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation; 194.
[2] Cott, 113.
[3] Cott, 112.
[4] Smith, Joseph. The Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; section 132, verse 61. (Emphasis mine).
[5] Smith, Doctrine and Covenants 132:39.
[6] Cott, 22.
[7] Smith, Doctrine and Covenants 121:36-7—“The rights of the priesthood… may be conferred upon us… but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.”
[8] This is a controversial claim, but it is well enough supported in Hendrik Hartog’s Man & Wife in America in passages that hold that in the 19th century the “private sphere was private both in the sense that it was not, ordinarily, subject to public regulation and in the sense that it was private property. It ‘belonged’ to the husband” (108). In this sense, a husband in a monogamous marriage was largely a law unto himself, whereas in a polygamous marriage a husband’s behavior was subject to the strict law of the priesthood.
[9] Cott, 111.
[10] Cott, 119.
[11] “Discourse by Apostle Erastus Snow,” 1882. Snow was one of the 12 Apostles, one of the two highest governing bodies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
[12] Genesis 16:1-3


At 12/04/2004 12:04:00 AM,

JD, I love you. Thanks for putting this up (as in posting, not as in hitting a golf ball on the green with the appropriate club [putter]).

I agree w/r/t the necessity that the blog get some exercise and good, thoughtful use if it will not go the way of all earth.

So I shall blog again (when I have cause and will and strength and means to do it. Examples gross as earth exhort me) (name the source of my plaigarism). 

Posted by Jason Kn

At 12/04/2004 12:18:00 AM,

OK, JD, I read this little thing. It was pretty clever and interesting.

One curiosity I have: What do you think the church in earlier days heard about or thought about the section 121 commands for righteous priesthood? Your application of that section and its precious (and preciously applied) doctrines to the church 130 years ago gives me a pause. I am not saying I can or would try to refute it; it just seems possible to me that saints in a distant time would possibly not be used to hearing these principles applied to each priesthood holder's familial responsibility, like we are. 

Posted by Jason Kn

At 12/04/2004 04:49:00 AM,

Hamlet, Act IV, scene iv. 

Posted by John D. Payne

At 12/04/2004 09:23:00 PM,

How are you linking the footnotes internally? I'd like to know the tag--could come in useful over at a bird's eye view

Posted by john fowles

At 12/14/2004 02:12:00 AM,

Good eye, JD. As long as you didn't google it. I love Hamlet. And totally off-post, have memorized that speech in the last few weeks. As if schoolwork isn't enough. 

Posted by Jason Kn

At 12/14/2004 04:12:00 AM,

Jason-- I'm appalled that you'd even insinute that I might have Googled the Hamlet quotation! Why would I expose my computer to the viral violence of the internet when I can search through the Bard's complete works on GospelLink?! 

Posted by John D. Payne




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