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Clements Fellow Sarah Pearsall’s Book, Polygamy: An Early American History, reviewed in The New York Review of Books.

The New York Review of Books

Originally Posted: April 9, 2020

The Mormon leader Brigham Young had more than fifty wives. Many of them lived in adjacent homes, the Beehive House and the Lion House, in Salt Lake City, which Young founded in 1847 as the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Polygamy, which the Mormons publicly announced as a church doctrine in 1852, provoked responses ranging from outrage to amusement among many Americans. Numerous anti-Mormon exposés appeared, with titillating titles like Awful Disclosures of Mormonism and Wife No. 19, or, The Story of a Life in Bondage. Bawdy jokes circulated, like this one from a comic newspaper: “Brigham Young cannot be said to rule with a rod of iron, as he emphatically enforces his commands by a pole of flesh! It is hard, no doubt, but not fatal.”1

Mormon polygamy was no laughing matter, however, for the Republican Party, which emerged in the 1850s with the aim of stamping out, its 1856 platform declared, “those twin relics of barbarism—Polygamy and Slavery.” Republicans insisted that polygamy and slavery (Young believed in both) destroyed individual freedom, the former by trapping women in patriarchal plural marriages, the latter by holding blacks in bondage. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed into law the first of several anti-polygamy laws that, over time, put so much pressure on the LDS church that it banned the practice in 1890 (though some fundamentalist Mormons continued it thereafter, including thousands who escaped the government crackdown by moving to Mexico, as the massacre in November 2019 of a Mormon family there reminds us).

Why did the Mormons and other groups adopt a form of marriage that was as controversial and as distant from mainstream mores as polygamy? What was it like to be part of a polygamous marriage? How do polygamous communities relate to the larger society?

Sarah Pearsall addresses such questions in her well-researched, often engrossing Polygamy: An Early American History. She has interesting things to say about the Mormons, though much of her book is devoted to exploring earlier examples of polygamy in North America. Pearsall traces plural marriage from sixteenth-century Guale Indians in Florida and seventeenth-century Pueblo Indians in New Mexico through Algonquins in New France (later Canada) to the Pequot, Wampanoag, and Narragansett tribes in southern New England and, in the South, the Cherokees, who were in time forcibly removed to Oklahoma. Interspersed with the discussions of these Native Americans is an account of polygamy among West Africans, some of whom continued the practice when they were transported to America as slaves.