Monday, March 30, 2009

Variation and Evolution in Latter-day Family Doctrine

Here is a paper I have just written for my School of Family Life Class. What a pain, but it was fun doing the research.

The LDS document, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, states that “the family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother...” However, it would be incorrect to conclude that this doctrine’s [1] eternal nature means that it cannot accommodate variation. The history of the Church demonstrates that the Mormon doctrine of family has undergone an evolution impressive in its breadth. The idea of family, both in doctrine and praxis, has been applied in such varied forms that outliers at either end of the spectrum are scarcely reconcilable as belonging to the same religion.

The Family as Central to Mormonism

As a Utah sociologist commented over half a century ago, “Society in both the Book of Mormon and Old Testament is conceived as an extended kinship group. All members thought of themselves as descended from a common ancestor.” [2] This view has deep resonance within the belief and practice of Latter-day Saints. From focus on genealogy and temple sealings to the commandment to hold Family Home Evenings, LDS members are steeped in a culture of family.

It is no surprise, then, that the ward is considered an extended family unit; the Bishop is often referred to as the “Father of the ward.” So too, the priesthood is thought of as inherently “Patriarchal,” and in rituals that offer Mormons a lens through which to view the world and all of life, they are powerfully reminded of the charge given to Adam and Eve to “multiply and replenish the earth.” However, the family, as currently understood, was not the initial model adopted by Latter-day Saints in the turbulent beginnings of the Nineteenth Century.

An Early Focus

The world in which the Church was restored was an unsettled one. The industrial revolution was beginning to force drastic change in society. Commenting on the predicament of the early Saints, sociologist O. Kendall White states:

The instability in their personal, family, and social lives was reflected in their fear that changes in the agrarian extended family portended extensive social disintegration. [They] failed to recognize the rise of the nuclear family as a form of kinship more compatible with [...] market forces, separation of work from the household, and the necessity of geographic mobility. [3]

Indeed, contrary to modern LDS family custom, the nascent Mormon ideology allowed the early Saints to resist the “trend toward the nuclear family,” presented as the model for Saints today.

The early Saints instead participated in a working theology that attempted to bring about the city of God, or Zion––a society that bridged the gaps between any individual families, and, more radically, between the living and the dead. In a sometimes violently changing world, nothing gave them “more [permanence] than the family.” [4]


It is during the Church’s Ohio period that one can observe the first major departure from the familial/marital norms of the day. It is likely that Joseph Smith’s first polygamist relationship took place sometime between 1831 and 1835, when he became involved with a young woman called Fanny Alger. (She would have been between 14 and 19 in this period.) It is difficult to ascertain the facts precisely, due to “conflicting accounts.” [5]

Todd Compton suggests that Joseph began to practice polygamy (in this case, with Fanny) about 1833, ten years before the revelation on polygamy was written and promulgated. Their relationship was short-lived; in 1836 Alger left for Indiana, where she remarried and bore her new husband nine children. [6]

Evidently, this relationship was shocking to contemporary sensibilities. Oliver Cowdery referred to it as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.” It was for this comment and others on the subject that he was excommunicated. Joseph Smith was very careful before the excommunication proceedings that Cowdery should clarify that Joseph had never “termed the Alger affair adulterous,” though he did not deny that he had a relationship with the girl. [7]

In the mid-1870’s, Martin Harris gave an interview, during the course of which he said that he,

[...] supposing that Joe was innocent [of the rumors about the Alger relationship], told him to take no notice of the girl, that she was full of the devil [...] but Joe Smith acknowledged that there was more truth than poetry in what the girl said. Harris then said he would have nothing to do in the matter, Smith could get out of the trouble the best way he knew how. [8]

Harris went on to explain that he believed that “God had rejected” the church, though he did feel “Mormonism was the pure gospel of Christ when it was first revealed.” The extent to which he thought the Alger affair entered into God’s rejection of the Saints remains unclear.

It seems unlikely that the truth of Joseph’s relationship with Alger was widely known within the body of the Saints, though they were doubtless aware of rumors (which concerned not only the Prophet, but the entire community). Perhaps in an attempt to quell such gossip, the body of the church canonized a “Chapter of Rules for Marriage Among the Saints”:

Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy; we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.

This section was appended to the end of the Doctrine and Covenants, though it is no longer found in the standard works, having become “obsolete” when the Church, in 1852, declared that it “had been practicing plural marriage [officially] for nearly a decade.” [9]

In any case, this relationship, sensational though it may seem to the modern reader, presaged more transgressions of Victorian social mores, as the Saints continued to build a culture steeped in their unique view of the scriptures.


Polygamy continued during the years the Saints spent in Nauvoo. In a period of two and a half years, “Joseph married about thirty additional women, ten [10] of them already married to other men[!]” [11] (There are eight further wives who are disputed, and only one of these was unquestionably married to another man at the time.) What can explain or justify this strange, and––to the the 21st Century mind––highly objectionable practice of polyandry? [12] Several arguments have been posited:

Some have suggested that the current husbands were either non-Mormon or had apostatized. Historical evidence, however, shows that only three husbands were not Latter-day saints, and only one was a disaffected Mormon. “All other husbands were in good standing in the church at the time Joseph married their wives.” Others have opined that these ten (or eleven) women were in unhappy marriages. Actually, most of these women “stayed with their ‘first husbands’ until death.” Still others have theorized that these were marriages-in-name-only, never consummated. [13] Sylvia Sessions Lyon, however, one of the polyandrous wives, claimed that Joseph was the father of her child, Josephine Lyon Fisher. There is, of course, clear evidence that Joseph’s relationships with his other wives were in fact sexual. Further, a non-sexual marriage flies in the face of the rationale of polygamy, as will be explained. [14]

It was during this Nauvoo period that “the focus of Mormon [...] discourse shifted from the concept of salvation to that of exaltation. [...] including the imperative to achieve godhood.” [15] This notion is key to understanding these mysterious marriage arrangements. Joseph’s revelations tied the concept of godhood to progeny. If a person does not abide God’s “law, [...] they cannot be enlarged [that is, bear children in the eternities], but remain separately and singly, without exaltation [...] to all eternity.” Contrarily, those who are sealed and so marry by God’s “law” and are “sealed [...] by the Holy Spirit of promise,” will become gods, and will receive “exaltation and glory in all things [...] and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” [16]

Even more significantly, Joseph promised to those already-married women that agreeing to marry the Prophet would “ensure [their] eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household. & all your kindred.” To the fathers of these women he promised that the union would “be crowned upon your heads with honor and immortality and eternal life to all your house both old and young.” [17]

This, more than any other consideration, is the material point. Joseph thought of himself and his calling in terms of kingship. In 1844, in a meeting of the Council of Fifty, Joseph was declared “King and Ruler over Israel,” and, indeed, over the whole earth. Ultimately, then, the Prophet’s marriages were dynastic in nature; he was creating a monarchical kinship structure. “Joseph’s kingdom grew with the size of his family, and those bonded to that family would be exalted with him,” including, ostensibly, his wives’ first husbands. [18]

Realizing this may begin to explain why, often, the first husbands of such a match approved. That is not to say that these marriages were without struggle. Emma Hale Smith, understandably, had a difficult time accepting plural marriage. Likely, she was able to cope by telling herself, and others, that her husband’s “plural wives were ‘celestial’ only, that he had no earthly marital relations with them.” [19] When faced with evidence to the contrary, she reacted. In an oral tradition of the Snow family, LeRoi C. Snow recounts:

...the Prophet and Emma [came] out of a room upstairs and [walked] together toward the stairway [...] Almost at the same time, [...] Eliza R. Snow [who was pregnant] came out and walked toward the [...] stairway. Joseph [...] kissed Emma goodbye, and [then] walked on to the stairway, where he tenderly kissed Eliza, and then came down the stairs [...] [A]s he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and [...] Eliza came tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy; she stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. [...] “Her hip was injured and [...] she always favored that leg,” said Charles C. Rich. “She lost the unborn babe.” [20]

Further Developments

After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the Church, under the direction of Brigham Young, continued to pursue a course regarding marriage and family that was deeply at odds with the prevailing culture. “For example, after Joseph Smith’s death, some women, who were originally sealed to him, married Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball for time. [...] [T]heir offspring [would] belong to Smith in the hereafter. Thus, Young and Kimball would contribute to Smith’s eternal progression.” [21]

It was also apparent that President Young would safeguard Brother Joseph’s familial interests in other ways. Joseph had married a woman named Zina Huntington, who, a few months earlier, had been wed to Henry Jacobs, a faithful member of the Church serving in the office of Seventy. Zina had continued to live with Jacobs, and would do so throughout the Prophet’s life. She would eventually bear Jacobs two sons. After Joseph’s death, however, she was approached by Brigham Young who told her that “‘if she would marry him she would be in a higher glory.’ [...] Zina was already sealed to Joseph Smith, so it is not clear how being sealed to Brigham for time would improve her chances for eternal salvation.” Nevertheless, she married Young for time in September 1844. As had been the practice with all of Joseph’s polyandrous wives, she continued cohabiting with her first husband, Henry, who had stood as a witness to both of Zina’s other sealings. [22]

They traveled west with the Saints, living together as husband and wife, but when the company reached Mt. Pisgah in Iowa, Brigham Young

“announced that ‘it was time for men who were walking in other men’s shoes to step out of them. Brother Jacobs, the woman you claim for a wife does not belong to you. She is the spiritual wife of Brother Joseph, sealed up to him. I am his proxy, and she, in this behalf, with her children, are my property. You can go where you please, and get another, but be sure to get one of your own kindred spirit.’” [23]

This announcement surely devastated Henry, who was then called by President Young on a mission to England, where he served faithfully. He later settled in California, where he wrote to Zina, now living as a plural wife of Brigham Young, “O how happy I should be if I only could see you and the little children, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. [...] I am unhappy, [...] there is no peace for poor me. [...] O Zina, can I ever, will I ever get you again[?]”

In a Valentine (undated) he added later:

Zina my mind never will change from Worlds without Ends, no never, the same affection is there and never can be moved[.] I do not murmur nor complain of the handlings of God no verily, no but I feel alone and no one to speak to, to call my own. I feel like a lamb without a mother [...] May the Lord our Father bless Brother Brigham and all purtains unto him forever. Tell him for me I have no feelings against him nor never had [...]

Though Henry and Zina’s story was unusual in detail, even for the time and culture within the Church, they demonstrate––painfully––the level of sacrifice and dedication required for membership in this new kingdom and culture.

The practice of polygamy was defended by various arguments on the part of Brigham Young and his fellows. One of the champions of plural marriage, George Q. Cannon, belittled the practice of monogamy saying,

[...] I wonder how man, standing up in the face of heaven, dare look at woman and talk about being her protector. Read the history of the sex and of the frightful evils which have been brought upon our sisters [...] If it were to be told to another people differently situated to us, with different traditions to us, they could not believe that intelligent man would entertain for one moment, or that women themselves, in view of what their sex has suffered, would cherish and cling to the wretched traditions [that is, monogamy] that have prevailed in Christendom [...] [24]

This rhetoric is a far cry from more current teachings about marriage, but it was not unusual for its time. In fact, a resolution approved by an assembly of Mormon women declared that polygamy was, “the only reliable safeguard of female virtue and innocence [...]” [25]

It is also interesting to note Brigham Young’s encouragement of women to pursue employment outside the home. This is another indication that the industrial-era concept of the nuclear family had not yet been assimilated by the Church. He taught that:

We have women here who [...] would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; [...] We believe that women [...] should stand behind the counter, study law or physics, or become good bookkeepers and be able to do the business in any counting house [...] [26]

The Law of Adoption

One of the fascinating outgrowths of Joseph Smith’s promises regarding polyandry, was a practice that came to be known as The Law of Adoption. In Joseph’s day, the marriage of a daughter or a sister to the Prophet could guarantee one’s own salvation; it was helpful in the final reckoning to be well connected. Similarly, early Saints felt that it would be beneficial to be related to other notable priesthood leaders. As the solemnization of polyandrous marriages began to wane, this was accomplished by the practice of

adopting individuals into one’s spiritual family. Although not a literal process by which fatherless children were taken into other families, in a symbolic and religious sense that is exactly what happened. In order to complete the chain of family connections back to God the Father, grown men were spiritually adopted in a special ordinance to prominent church leaders. If the adopted man was a head of a family of wife and children, the entire family was considered linked to the earthly-spiritual father, usually an apostle [...] [A]dopted sons and families considered themselves under the dominion and protection of their surrogate father [...] often [assuming] the surname of their new father as their own, even though they themselves were grown men with children. [27]

This practice was ended by President Wilford Woodruff in April 1894. When he encouraged the Church members to begin researching their genealogy and doing temple ordinances for the ancestors in their family line. This preserved the practice of sealing, but did so within a new context, reaching across the boundary of death. [28] Here we see another shift in the Mormon understanding of family––this time, moving nearer to embracing the concept of the nuclear family. Being sealed to prominent members of the Church took a back seat to being sealed to one’s own biological ancestors. This practice reemphasizes the idea that the Saints cannot “without [their] dead[,] be made perfect.” [29] Thus salvation for Mormons is tied to relatives who may not have even been members of the Church during their lives.

The Manifesto and Aftermath

In 1890 Wilford Woodruff promulgated a document now known as The First Manifesto. This “signaled the official end of polygamy” within the Church. [30] It was a difficult issue for the Saints to face. On the one hand, “the principle” had been taught as absolutely necessary to exaltation; [31] on the other, now the major barrier preventing Utah’s gaining statehood had been hurdled. What were the members currently practicing plural marriage to do? Abraham H. Cannon recorded in his journal that President Woodruff “expected polygamists to continue to support their wives [...] this support included cohabitation.” [32]

In 1891, President Woodruff stated publicly that “the Manifesto was intended to apply to the Church [...] everywhere in every nation and country,” and that the Church was “giving no liberty to enter into polygamous relations anywhere.” Cannon noted in his journal that Wilford Woodruff had explained his statement, saying that “he was placed in a position on the witness stand [and] could not answer other than he did.” [33]

Though ended officially, the Church solemnized some few polygamous marriages for several years. This began when George Q. Cannon suggested to President Woodruff that such marriages might be performed in Mexico and Canada (ostensibly because they were legal in those countries, though, in fact, this was not the case). Joseph F. Smith later reported to Reed Smooth that the President agreed, “letting Cannon direct the new polygamy so that he [Woodruff] would not participate directly as Church President.” In 1897, the last of Woodruff’s presidency, there was a dramatic increase in these quietly authorized marriages, perhaps because Utah’s new statehood would minimize “federal interference.” [34]

During Presidency of Lorenzo Snow, there was a general reaffirmation of the Manifesto. As a result, new polygamous marriages nearly ceased. However, during the tenure of Joseph F. Smith, the practice experienced a resurgence, with his approval. Admittedly, the President had to walk a fine line. In 1904, during the Smoot hearings, he said that from the time the manifesto was introduced “there never [had] been, to [his] knowledge, a plural marriage performed with the understanding [...] or permission of the presiding authorities of the church [...]” However, in 1911, in a telegram to the then-Senator Smoot he wrote: “If the president inquires about the new polygamy tell him the truth [...] the men occupying presiding positions who became polygamists [in Mexico and Canada] since the manifesto did it in good faith.” [35]

This change in the Church’s official attitude signaled another decisive shift in the direction of the nuclear family. (Though it is appropriate that plural marriage, a practice begun in secrecy, should end that way.) By the end of Joseph F. Smith’s presidency, polygamous marriages had ceased being solemnized with the sanction of the Church, and Mormonism was moving in a direction that would win it widespread approbation.

The Modern Era and Beyond

As the Church continued to move into the 20th Century, public opinion began to look brighter. Jan Shipps has written that a new “positive trend in the Mormon image” began in the 1930’s and eventually began to replace the backward, negative impression that had characterized most “gentile” press until that point. The “scattering of the gathering” also helped non-members to see that Latter-day Saints were not a threatening element to society, as Mormons moved away from Utah and rubbed shoulders with their non-Mormon neighbors. [36]

This tendency also likely had an effect on the culture of the Church. Now, as the Saints dispersed, stakes gave way to districts, and wards to branches. The number of fellow religionists an LDS person could call on shrunk. As a result, Mormons had to rely on the structure of the immediate family to a greater degree.

By the 50’s, the Saints were seen as “neat, modest, virtuous” and, above all, “family-loving.” Part of this positive image was likely aided by the contrast between Mormons and the burgeoning hippie culture. [37]

So modern Mormonism’s family doctrine had undergone a further shift. Where the Saints were once mistrustful of the government, they became its model citizens––reflections of exactly the family model that their culture and doctrine had initially resisted. New understandings had to be reached––storing the old wine in new bottles––but in the process preserving all that could be saved. Family was still central, but perhaps at the cost of some sense of community. Polygamy was still doctrinal, but for most Latter-day Saints, plural spouses are only for the life to come. 19th Century rhetoric about God and His “wives” gave way to other, now more familiar words: “Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.”

It is impossible to know what permutations the Church, and the Church’s notion of family may take in the future. Again, the Saints find themselves in a position increasingly opposed to modern sentiment. We are preserving a model that today’s culture finds outmoded and backward. In any case, whatever accommodations we make for the future, we can be sure that family will remain central, no matter how we reinvent it.


[1] It is notoriously difficult to pin down exactly what is meant in LDS discourse by the word “doctrine,” to say nothing of deciding what “the doctrines” of the Church actually are. For the purposes of this paper, “doctrine” is considered any teaching that, coming from a sufficiently high authority, carried enough force to be brought into practice by the Saints. Thus, “doctrine” will be seen to change throughout the history of the Church.

[2] From Herbert Ray Larsen, “Familism in Mormon Social Structure,” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1954, 156. Quoted in Quinn, 163.

[3] White, 290, emphasis added.

[4] Ibid., 290-93.

[5] Bushman, 323.

[6] Bushman, 326-27. Also see Compton, 4-5.

[7] Ibid., 324.

[8] Martin Harris Interview with Anthony Metcalf, circa 1873-74, Vogel, 348.

[9] Van Wagoner, 69-70.

[10] By Compton's count, eleven of the wives were already married. See Compton, 15.

[11] Bushman, 437, emphasis added. Indeed, as Compton explains, chronologically, of the "first twelve wives, nine were polyandrous." In this period, "polyandry was the norm, not the anomaly" p. 15.

[12] This is not precisely “polyandry” as the sociologists would define it. However, the term has been used frequently in the literature on the Nauvoo period, so it will suffice for the purposes of this paper.

[13] Bushman, 439.

[14] Compton, 12-16.

[15] Ibid., 4-9. White, 292.

[16] Doctrine and Covenants 132:17, 19.

[17] Quoted in Bushman, 439.

[18] Ibid., 439, 523.

[19] Compton, 12.

[20] Newell and Avery, 135.

[21] White, 295.

[22] Compton, 20, 80-84, “There were no divorces as a result of [Joseph’s] polyandrous marriages.”

[23] Van Wagoner, 79.

[24] Journal of Discourses, Vol. 20, 198-199.

[25] Quoted in White, 298.

[26] Ibid., 299.

[27] Quinn, 174.

[28] White, 301.

[29] Doctrine and Covenants 128:15.

[30] Cannon, 28.

[31] “‘What will become of those individuals who have this law taught unto them in plainness, if they reject it?’ asked Orson Pratt at the official announcement of plural marriage as a doctrine and practice of the LDS church in 1852 [...] ‘I will tell you: they will be damned, saith the Lord God Almighty’ [...]” See Quinn, 181.

[32] Cannon, 28.

[33] Ibid., 28.

[34] Ibid., 28.

[35] Ibid., 28-31.

[36] Shipps, 58.

[37] Ibid., 59.


Works Cited

Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Knopf: New York, NY 2005.

Cannon, Kenneth L., II. “After the Manifesto: Mormon Polygamy 1890 - 1906.” Sunstone. January-March, 1983.

Compton, Todd. In Sacred Lonliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1997.

Newell, Linda King, and Valleen Tippetts Avery. Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.
University of Illinois Press: Champaign, IL, 1994

Quinn, D. Michael. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1997.

Shipps, Jan. “Surveying the Mormon Image Since 1960.” Sunstone. April, 2001.

Van Wagoner, Richard S. “Mormon Polyandry in Nauvoo.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Fall, 1985.

Vogel, Dan. Early Mormon Documents: Vol. 2. Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1999.

White, O. Kendall. “Ideology of the Family in Nineteenth Century Mormonism.” Sociological Spectrum. June, 1986.


Hill-Mulford Family said...

Nice paper!

Dr. Hill

Matt said...

So depressing.