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What Makes A Marriage?

June 2024
6min read

The courts are taking up the question of what can and cannot constitute legal wedlock. They’ve been there before.

Rhetorical bombs were bursting last May, but the shock waves are just now being felt. The issue: “What is the civil definition of marriage?” Faced with the possibility that Hawaii might be judicially ordered to legalize marriages between homosexual couples (which other states might then be constitutionally obliged to recognize), Congress followed the lead of several states and this fall passed a “defense of marriage” law that would reserve the term (and its benefits) exclusively for the legal union of one man and one woman. In making this pre-emptive strike, Republicans hoped to force President Clinton into a position on the matter that would alienate either socially conservative Democrats or gay and lesbian voters. Clinton promptly promised to sign the bill; at press time the final outcome remains to be seen.

The key argument deployed by supporters of undiluted “traditional” marriage is that it is the best and only system for nurturing stable families, as all modernized societies, at least, have found. Is that historically the case? Well, suppose I were to tell you that quite recently, as history goes, there was a religious community of orderly, abstemious, hardworking Americans who firmly believed that marriage could and should constitute the lawful joining of one man with two or even more women. Suppose I were to add that its leaders authorized such pairings for nearly forty years and then changed their minds only because the government of the United States (with the undoubted consent of a majority) ignored its commitment to religious freedom and used arbitrary power to make them do so. And—but let me stop supposing and tell the story as it happened.

I am referring, of course, to the rise and extinction of polygamy (technically polygyny) among the Mormons, the subject of a number of intriguing studies by dispassionate modern scholars. The account must begin with the briefest possible outline of the early history and wanderings of the Mormons, or, in their full title, the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded in 1830 by a youth, named Joseph Smith, who had grown up in upstate New York. Smith claimed to have received a revelation from God to restore the original but corrupted church of the apostles to its former purity. His followers believe that with the help of an angel he found and “translated” the Book of Mormon, a Gospel that links biblical history to that of America.

Despite secessions and schisms, converts to Mormonism grew by the thousands. They began a long search for a place to establish their Zion, and by 1847 the Mormons had settled in the Great Basin “wilderness” around the Great Salt Lake, where they began to build a community under the leadership of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, who called himself “Prophet, Seer and Revelator.” They expected to be safely isolated there, but the outside world impinged on them inexorably, leading to strife with fast-growing numbers of incoming “Gentiles,” the Mormons’ term for all who did not share their beliefs. It was in this already turbulent state of things that “plural marriage” was formally asserted as church doctrine in 1852. Polygamy now became the symbolic focus of a long struggle between the Mormons and their enemies in the swiftly developing West.

Anti-Mormon writers found that polygamy perfectly fitted a propaganda that painted Mormonism as a malign anti-Gentile conspiracy with secret armies and dastardly crimes. (See the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet , for an example.) Polygamy struck at two Victorian sacred codes, domesticity and chastity. The idea of a man legitimately bedding more than one partner was uncivilized—“loathsome and poisonous to … social purity”—fit only for backward peoples. The very first national Republican platform in 1856 linked polygamy with slavery as a relic of “barbarism,” and a party leader labeled it “an Asiatic and African pestilence.” A distinguished ethnologist affirmed: “Modern society reposes upon the monogamian [ sic ] family. The whole previous experience and progress of mankind culminated and crystallized in this preeminent institution.”

Outsiders had visions of Mormon seraglios. One woman wrote a distinctly unauthorized biography of Young entitled The Mormon Prophet and His Harem . Sermons and editorials echoed the judgment of one church gathering that polygamy was “a system of masked sensuality” with its origin in “lust.”

Mormon spokesmen made little headway in explaining that sexual gratification was the last thing contemplated by “plural” or even “celestial” marriage. Its purpose was strictly procreative—to enable the faithful to be fruitful and multiply. This was not merely to replenish the earth, for in Mormon doctrine God had created millions of spirits in heaven that must descend and pass through a cycle of human life before final resurrection and glorification. New births provided the necessary bodies for these celestial souls. Moreover, since women’s postresurrection salvation was dependent on that of husbands, and vice versa, it was also a religious duty to “seal [to men] for time and eternity” as many women as possible, even when no sexual relation was involved.

These arguments were linked to others more consistent with majority beliefs. The most telling was that the Bible clearly sanctioned the concubinage of the patriarchs. In addition, Mormon leaders readily agreed with the Victorian point of view that men were sexually more driven than women, and they argued that plural marriage, by providing legitimate outlets, eliminated prostitution and adultery. Asked how many wives he had, one Mormon elder snapped, “I have such a plenty of my own that I have no occasion to trouble my neighbors.” In all, Mormon teachings on the subject hardly encouraged license.

In actual operation the Mormons’ “puritan polygamy,” as a modern writer called it, was far less lurid than imagined. Facts are hard to come by, since persecution drove the practice underground. But studies indicate that the overall share of Utah’s Mormon populace in plural marriages was around 25 percent, with sharp variations among settlements. The great majority of these polygamists had only two wives, just enough to fulfill the commandment. Only a small number (mainly of successful leaders) had more than three. Brigham Young was variously estimated to have had between twenty-seven and eighty-four, but many of these (if genuine) may have been sealings for eternity without physical contact.

Polygamous husbands usually, though not always, built separate quarters for their separate families. Testimony on how the multiple wives and children got along is anecdotal but seems to suggest that jealousy and strife were not necessarily more common than in traditional arrangements. The best account is by Kimball Young, a sociologist and grandson of Brigham Young, in a 1954 book titled Isn’t One Wife Enough ? Despite the presumed degradation of women that the practice implied, there was no notable cry for rescue from female Mormons. It seems astonishing, but no more so than the success of Mormonism itself—the acceptance by individualistic and property-loving converts of a form of theocratic communitarianism. The power of faith to modify “human nature” is hard to exaggerate.

As it turned out, plural marriage could not be sustained in a territory destined to become an American state. Vermont-born Brigham Young had counted on the religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution as his shield; “I defy all the lawyers of the United States to prove the contrary,” he thundered. But Congress first outlawed polygamy in Utah Territory in 1862. Twelve years later, following widespread evasion, it passed a tougher statute and took enforcement away from the Mormon-dominated territorial courts. Brigham Young died in 1877 and did not live to see the Supreme Court dash his hopes in the test case of his secretary, George Reynolds. The justices upheld Reynolds’s conviction on polygamy charges. They said that laws could not “interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions” but could prevent abhorrent “practices” for which a religious defense was offered. Anything less would “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” Mere, indeed!

The decision came in 1879 and opened the war in earnest. Young’s suecessor as president of the church, John Taylor, protested that polygamy “emanated from God and cannot be legislated away.” In retaliation the Edmunds Act of 1882 and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 imposed jail terms and stiff fines for “cohabitation,” forced wives to testify against their husbands, disincorporated the church and confiscated its property. About a thousand “polygs” were hunted out and imprisoned for the crime, as one of them put it, of “obeying the commands of … my Eternal Father.” Taylor went into hiding, as did others. As many as twelve thousand Mormons were disfranchised.

Perhaps because the parallel to Reconstruction was so striking, one Florida senator opposed the EdmundsTucker bill by an appeal to let time and free expression work toward changing Mormon opinion, rather than invoke “the force of the criminal law.” But in fact, potentially changeable ideas on marriage and morals were not the only question. The real point was to break Mormonism’s union of church and state before Utah could be admitted to the Union. As one opponent of the “political domination of the Church” observed, thanks to the “universal detestation” of polygamy, “we were given a very effective weapon.”

Pragmatic Mormon leaders finally realized as much, and surrender came in 1890, when Wilford Woodruff, the new president of the church, issued a “manifesto” saying: “I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-Day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” Polygamy did not instantly vanish. There were purists who held out and hid for years. There were official adjustments, exceptions, pardons, and excommunications. Utah became the forty-fifth state in 1896, and by the 1920s Mormons were a conservative part of mainline America, while monogamy, “the most cherished institution of our civilization,” as a commission on Utah statehood had once called it, was safe. So ends the tale.

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