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The Domestic Bliss Of Brigham Young

July 2024
2min read

While their religion differed from orthodox Protestantism in many respects, the most “peculiar institution” of the Mormons was polygamy, which they insisted was ordained by the Scriptures. Orthodoxy disagreed, and until 1890, when the church officially renounced the practice, polygamy was a constant source of pious outrage and derision—such as in the 1877 cartoon at left, which manages to combine cruelty and prurience with a raw humor. Mark Twain was a good deal more gentle in his own remarks on the subject. He had stopped off in Salt Lake City on his way West in 1861, and in Roughing It , published in 1872, he fantasized about certain practical difficulties in the daily life of Brigham Young:

“None of our party got an opportunity to take dinner with Mr. Young, but a Gentile by the name of Johnson professed to have enjoyed a sociable breakfast in the Lion House. He gave a preposterous account of the ‘calling of the roll,’ and other preliminaries, and the carnage that ensued when the buckwheat cakes came in. But he embellished rather too much. He said that Mr. Young told him several smart sayings of certain of his ‘twoyear-olds,’ observing with some pride that for many years he had been the heaviest contributor in that line to one of the Eastern magazines; and then he wanted to show Mr. Johnson one of the pets that had said the last good thing, but he could not find the child. He searched the faces of the children in detail, but could not decide which one it was. Finally he gave it up. …

” ‘I thought I would know the little cub again but I don’t.’

“Mr. Johnson said further, that Mr. Young observed that life was a sad, sad thing—‘because the joy of every new marriage a man contracted was so apt to be blighted by the inopportune funeral of a less recent bride.’ And Mr. Johnson said that while he and Mr. Young were pleasantly conversing in private, one of the Mrs. Youngs came in and demanded a breast-pin, remarking that she had found out that he had been giving a breast-pin to No. 6, and she , for one, did not propose to let this partiality go on without making a satisfactory amount of trouble about it. Mr. Young reminded her that there was a stranger present. Mrs. Young said that if the state of things inside the house was not agreeable to the stranger, he could find room outside. Mr. Young promised the breast-pin, and she went away. But in a minute or two another Mrs. Young came in and demanded a breast-pin. Mr. Young began a remonstrance, but Mrs. Young cut him short. She said No. 6 had got one, and No. 11 was promised one, and it was ‘no use for him to try to impose on her—she hoped she knew her rights.’ He gave his promise, and she went. And presently three Mrs. Youngs entered in a body and opened on their husband a tempest of tears, abuse, and entreaty. They had heard all about No. 6, No. 11, and No. 14. Three more breast-pins were promised. They were hardly gone when nine more Mrs. Youngs filed into the presence, and a new tempest burst forth and raged round about the prophet and his guest. Nine breast-pins were promised, and the weird sisters filed out again. And in came eleven more, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth. Eleven promised breastpins purchased peace once more.

” ‘That is a specimen,’ said Mr. Young. ‘You see how it is. You see what a life I lead. A man can’t be wise all the time. … My friend, take an old man’s advice, and don’t encumber yourself with a large family—mind, I tell you, don’t do it. In a small family, and in a small family only, you will find that comfort and that peace of mind which are the best at last of the blessings this world is able to afford us, and for the lack of which no accumulation of wealth, and no acquisition of fame, power, and greatness can ever compensate us. Take my word for it, ten or eleven wives is all you need—never go over it.’ ”

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