Throughout its history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has pursued the seemingly opposing goals of staking out territory as “a peculiar people” with a unique theology while seeking mainstream acceptance. The most dramatic tension between these two paths came during the faith’s experience with the practice of polygamy. “The Principle” became the defining feature of Mormonism in the 19th century, and many Latter-day Saints were willing to endure external persecution and internal anxiety to defend it before it was abandoned during Utah’s bid for statehood.
B. Carmon Hardy illustrates both the faith-strengthening aspects and worldly strains of polygamy for the LDS faithful in Doing the Works of Abraham, a thorough account of plural marriage in the 19th century that could well be called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Polygamy but Were Afraid to Ask. Hardy has compiled an impressive amount of information on 19th-century Mormon polygamy and related topics, presenting his information in a balanced and objective manner. He makes room for the perspectives of LDS leaders, rank-and-file Mormons and “Gentile” newspaper writers who were constantly venturing to Utah to provide accounts of polygamy to curious East Coast readers.
Along the way, the reader can also learn many curious and sometimes amusing facts relating to “celestial marriage.” Emma Smith and Sidney Rigdon both felt polygamy ultimately led to Joseph Smith’s death. Some Mormon leaders taught that Jesus was a polygamist. There were arguments on both sides that polygamous unions created either stronger or weaker children. Brigham Young granted polygamous divorces at $10 per de-coupling; ads for “Mormon Wafers” promised much the same thing Viagra does; some believed that polygamy would die a natural death as “Zion” became less isolated from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, LDS leader George Q. Cannon was suggesting a form of eugenics before any modern scientist, and a Chicago newspaper proposed to take care of the “twin relics of barbarism”—slavery and polygamy—in one fell swoop by shipping former slaves to Utah.
The amount of information and variety of perspectives available alone make this book a worthwhile read, but Hardy goes beyond a mere recounting to create a work that does what all good historical studies do: allow us to be astounded at how different our ancestors are from us, while also helping us see how much we have in common with them. One comes away from Doing the Works of Abraham appalled and yet somehow impressed by 19th-century Latter-day Saints and their attempt at what Hardy calls “one of the longest campaigns of civil disobedience in American history.
“They bent both bodies and emotions to the task,” Hardy writes of those who practiced the Principle, often with misgivings. “That mortal failings sometimes intruded only increases our marvel at the attempt.”
This marveling is aided by Hardy giving the reader access to the voices of those who were horrified by polygamy but willing to subject themselves to its practice because of their religious faith. As polygamous wife Sarah Comstock put it, “The agony and exaltation became one.”
These 19th-century accounts are matched by Hardy’s own well-crafted prose, particularly in the book’s afterword, where he reaches the conclusion that—rather than “purposely screening their recollections” in order to distance themselves from “a curious, sometimes embarrassing doctrinal heirloom”—21st-century Mormons ought to accept their polygamous history and give their predecessors “a long overdue heraldic place on the table of this American Israel’s pioneer epoch, a salute to their proud religious audacity.” After all, as Hardy points out, such acknowledgement of the past can be helpful in facing present issues. In the book’s closing page he writes, “For those who study it, however, Mormonism’s brave adventure with plural marriage … is an instructive subject.” Particularly in the hands of a historian as talented as Hardy.
KINGDOM IN THE WEST: THE MORMONS AND THE AMERICAN FRONTIER, VOL. 9 DOING THE WORKS OF ABRAHAM: MORMON POLYGAMY: ITS ORIGIN, PRACTICE AND DEMISE Edited by B. Carmon Hardy Will Bagley, series editor 446 pages $39.95 hardcover The Arthur H. Clark Company 2007