The Canadian Supreme Court (British Columbia) is currently hearing a case on the constitutionality of Canada’s polygamy laws. On December 2 (2010) the court heard testimony from Utah clinical psychologist Dr. Lawrence Beall, who described the “dark side” of polygamy in “fundamentalist Mormon communities.”
Dr. Beall’s remarks focused on the fate and experiences of the women involved in polygamy. Based on his personal counseling of “polygamy survivors,” Dr. Beall detailed some of the problems women had endured upon leaving polygamy. He described these women as “robotic,” saying they shut down their feelings and lived in a sort of numbness. They tended to suffer from “self-blame, guilt and shame.” He had difficulty treating them because they had been told that any problems they experienced were due to their own personal weaknesses.
Dr. Beall also testified that the young girls who had been brought into polygamy didn’t have the power to decide who or when to marry. This differs from Joseph Smith’s 1840s Nauvoo polygamy, the root of the polygamy practiced by fundamentalists. In Nauvoo, the girls did have a say in the matter of their polygamous marriages. But Dr. Beall’s testimony of the dark side of polygamy did include some remarkable parallels to Mormon polygamy in Nauvoo. A few examples follow.
The Canadian newspaper, The Province, reporting on Dr. Beall’s testimony, said:
“When the older man is a church leader, it’s much more problematic. She believes he would never harm her because he’s close to God. She believes to deny him what he wants is the equivalent of denying God.”
Heber C. Kimball was one of the original apostles of the LDS Church in Nauvoo, Illinois. A fully converted polygamist himself, Kimball sought eternal security through a union between his family and the Prophet Joseph Smith. To that end, Kimball offered to give his 14-year-old daughter, Helen, to Joseph as a plural wife. When Joseph accepted, Kimball faced the task of convincing his daughter who was still unaware of his plural wife. After introducing the doctrine of plural marriage to Helen, she wrote,
“[My father] left me to reflect upon it for the next twenty-four hours… I was skeptical–one minute believed, then doubted. I thought of the love and tenderness that he felt for his only daughter, and I knew that he would not cast her off, and this was the only convincing proof that I had of its being right. I knew that he loved me too well to teach me anything that was not strictly pure, virtuous and exalting in its tendencies…”
In this case the church leader was also the young girl’s father. Nevertheless, it was her faith and trust in him coupled with the words of the Prophet Joseph that led her to agree to the marriage. The day after Helen’s father made the request, Joseph personally explained plural marriage to her:
“[Joseph] said to me, ‘If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.’ This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward.” (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 498-499)
George D. Smith, in his book Nauvoo Polygamy, also notes,
“Nauvoo citizens accepted plural marriage. The primary expressed reasons for practicing polygamy were belief in the ‘revealed word’ of God and a demonstration of loyalty to Joseph Smith. By this logic, if it had not been ‘right,’ the prophet would not have revealed it. Smith exercised remarkable influence over his followers. He assured them that plural marriage was necessary for celestial-afterlife glory…” (386)
Another parallel revealed by Dr. Beall’s testimony before the BC Supreme Court is this:
“These people have been taught that if they don’t give complete compliance, they will lose their salvation. None of us can probably appreciate that. It means they’re losing everything.”
In 1842, after sending John Walker away on a mission, Joseph Smith approached John’s 16-year-old daughter, Lucy, with a proposal of plural marriage. Smith told Lucy, “I have been commanded of God to take another wife, and you are the woman.” Lucy was not willing to accept. At a subsequent meeting between the two, Smith reemphasized to Lucy that the proposal was “a command of God to you.” Smith said, “I will give you untill to-morrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you.” Lucy became Joseph Smith’s 23rd plural wife the day after her 17th birthday. (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 463-465)
We find yet another concern noted in Dr. Beall’s testimony:
“When the women come to him for treatment, safety is often an issue because ‘they’re often pursued after they leave the community,’ said the psychologist.”
A concern for physical safety was not an element attending polygamy in Nauvoo. However, women who refused an offer of plural marriage and then went public were subject to character assassination perpetrated by Mormon Church leaders. From Richard Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy:
“Not only were church leaders willing to violate the law to promote polygamy, they did not hesitate to blacken the character of individuals who threatened to expose the secret practice of plural marriage.
“Sarah Pratt was not the only woman to suffer from this policy. The 27 August 1842 Wasp, for example, branded Martha H. Brotherton a ‘mean harlot,’ and Nancy Rigdon suffered the same treatment after she opposed Smith’s polygamous proposals. Stephen Markham, a close friend of Smith, certified in the 31 August 1842 ‘Affidavits’ that he saw Nancy Rigdon in a compromising situation with [John C.] Bennett. He claimed ‘many vulgar, unbecoming and indecent sayings and motions’ passed between them and testified that he was convinced they were ‘guilty of unlawful and illicit intercourse with each other.’ …[However,] ‘the young men of the city came forward and gave certificates against Markham, stating that they believed Markham willfully and maliciously lied to injure the character of Miss Rigdon, and to help Smith out of the dilemma.'” (38-39, fn 12)
There is much more that could be brought forth to demonstrate the “dark side” of polygamy, both then and now. What the Old Testament Preacher said is true: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).