Well, I’ll probably be banned from ever entering Utah for this, but here goes.
I just read The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. It tells the somewhat parallel stories of two nineteenth wives: Ann Eliza Webb, wife of Brigham Young, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints’ second leader in the 1870s, and the fictional nineteenth wife of the leader of a modern-day polygamist sect, an offshoot of the LDS church that is reminiscent of Warren Jeffs’ sect and the like. Or rather, it tells the story of the son of the modern-day wife. Or rather … Well, the book gets a bit messy, but I did get some insight into the consequences of polygamy for the women involved.
Ebershoff quotes from letters and other seemingly historical documents, so I decided to look up Brigham Young and Ann Eliza to see to what degree the novel was based on reality. Well, after checking several different sites, I found that the information provided in the novel about Brigham Young and his wives is pretty much accurate, and the quotes are from real documents. Ann Eliza was probably more like the fifty-somethingth wife, but counting was purposely confusing at the time.
I concluded that women were, for all intents and purposes, slaves of their husbands. They got room and board, at least for as long as they were still on the “fuck list”. (Bebershoff uses this term for the modern-day polygamist leader’s sexual day planner; Ann Eliza Webb never used the term for the way Brigham Young moved his women from one status to the next, but it comes down to the same thing in the end.)
As Young acquired more wives after her, Ann Eliza was moved off the list. At first she still stayed for free in the tiny house Young had given her, and she received something like food stamps, but after a while this stopped, and when confronted, Young suggested she take on sewing or some other means of making money for herself.
These polygamist men took a new wife whenever they fancied some new flesh, or felt a little mid-life crisis coming on:
“Do you think that I am an old man? I could prove to this congregation that I am young; for I could find more girls who would choose me for a husband than can carry any of the young men.”
– Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 5, p. 210
And their huge households were run by dozens of unpaid maids, uh, I mean wives.
Let me back up a little.
In case you’re not American: Utah is the center of Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (the LDS church). The founder of this church was Joseph Smith, who claimed to have had the revelation that men should have multiple wives–that this would please the Lord.
Apparently the Lord didn’t need to twist Smith’s arm much, because he went forth and took at least thirty-three wives–probably more; he and lots of polygamists at the time lied about the number. No doubt not because deep in their hearts they knew they were doing something despicable, but rather because the rest of the world wasn’t ready for the truth yet.
And let’s face it, you can’t do God’s seeding work when you’re stuck in jail for breaking the law, so there were practical reasons for lying as well.
Smith was killed in 1844 by an anti-Mormon mob, and Brigham Young succeeded him as president of the church. This man had at least fifty wives and stuck to his story that polygamy was God’s will right up to his death in 1877. The Supreme Court made polygamy illegal in 1878, but the LDS church didn’t distance itself completely from polygamy until 1904.
Brigham Young also segregated the church. In 1852, he wrote,
“The moment we consent to mingle with the seed of Cain the Church must go to destruction, – we should receive the curse which has been placed upon the seed of Cain, and never more be numbered with the children of Adam who are heirs to the priesthood until that curse be removed.”
– Prophet Brigham Young, Brigham Young Addresses, Feb. 5, 1852
Black men couldn’t be priests or participate in religious rites. This segregation also continued until 1878, a year after Young’s death.
And as for the Native Americans in Utah: In what by now can be called typical Youngian fashion, he simply proposed to fuck them out of existence:
“We are now going to the Lamanites, to whom we intend to be messengers of instruction… We will show them that in consequence of their transgressions a curse has been inflicted upon them – in the darkness of their skins. We will have intermarriages with them, they marrying our young women, and we taking their young squaws to wife. By these means it is the will of the Lord that the curse of their color shall be removed and they restored to their pristine beauty…”
– Prophet Brigham Young, quoted in The Abominations of Mormonism Exposed, pp. 58-59
In short, Brigham Young did outrageous things in the name of God. He was the epitome of what’s wrong with religion: He followed his dick and got others to do the same by claiming that it was God’s will. If you think it wasn’t all about self-glorification, consider the following:
“ . . . I shall have wives and children by the million, and glory, and riches, and power, and dominion, and Kingdom after Kingdom, and reign triumphantly.”
– Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 8, pp. 178-179
Thanks to oversexed, power-hungry patriarchs like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, women and girls still live in slavery in several offshoot sects to this day. Can you tell that this infuriates me?
I jump back and forth in time a lot in this post. So jump back with me again, to the moment I first read the name Brigham Young in The 19th Wife. It sounded vaguely familiar. Wasn’t there a Brigham Young University somewhere? I kept reading, and the more I read about this guy, the more I doubted that there could be a Brigham Young University. Nah, surely not!
I do most of my book reading in bed at night, and most of my googling on the living room couch during the day, so it took a while before I remembered to look up Brigham Young University online. What?! There is a Brigham Young University! In Utah.
The more I read about Brigham Young, both in the novel and online, the more flabbergasted I became that there’s a university named after him. Among many other things.
No doubt Mormons will say in his defense that, apart from being a racist, polygamist . . . person, he was also Utah’s first governor. To which I say, of course he was; he took his flock to the middle of nowhere so he and his buddies could have their holy ways with the girls and women far from the prying eyes of the rest of society. And he settled the west. Well, yeah, with hundreds of little Briggies conceived in slavery. And he wasn’t as brutal in dealing with the Native Americans as some others. No, maybe he didn’t rule with an iron fist, but he sure ruled with an iron penis. And he founded a university. Sure, but to teach what exactly?
So what I can’t get my mind around is this: How much can Mormons really have distanced themselves from Brigham Young’s practices if they named one of their largest institutions after him?
I don’t care about modern-day Mormonism. I’m not attacking that. The Bible or The Book of Mormon–it’s all the same to me. If it’s somehow important to you to believe that Jesus came to America, then by all means believe it. If he could walk on water, then it would have been but a small hike to the New World, especially with a little help from a westerly wind. In religion anything is possible.
I’m only concerned with polygamy. The LDS church banned polygamy for good in 1904; it claims that it’s monogamous and that “polygamy was a temporary exception”. But at the same time there’s still a university in Utah named after the biggest polygamist in history. How do you explain that?
And the larger question is this: When do you decide that one aspect of someone’s legacy is so bad that none of the good he/she has done can make up for it? Hitler made the trains run on time, but we all know where they were headed. And who cares that Bin Laden was nice to his kids? Conversely, if you do feel that those things also matter, what does that say about your sense of priority?
Give me your thoughts. Where would you draw the line? I am truly baffled.
Brigham Young. Wikipedia.
Dowling, Claudia Glenn. Brigham Young’s 19h Wife. History Net. 2012
Joseph Smith. Wikipedia.
Joseph Smith and Polygamy. Mormonism Research Ministry.
Mormon Quotes: Polygamy. Mormon Think.
Mormonism and Polygamy. Wikipedia.