Mormon Polygamy: Comedy or Tragedy?

All over the news this weekend, all across the globe, was an Associated Press article about the polygamy of Mitt Romney’s ancestors. Journalists Jennifer Dobner and Glen Johnson have written an article that not only details the multiple marriages of Mr. Romney’s great- and great-great grandparents, but also takes a look at the history of polygamy in the LDS Church. The article begins:

While Mitt Romney condemns polygamy and its prior practice by his Mormon church, the Republican presidential candidate’s great-grandfather had five wives and at least one of his great-great grandfathers had 12.

Both Mr. Romney and his wife, Ann, have made light of Mormonism’s polygamy. As noted by the AP,

Romney has joked about polygamy, saying in various settings that to him, “marriage is between a man and a woman … and a woman and a woman.”…This month, Ann Romney tried a different tack, taking a lighthearted jab at her husband’s main Republican competitors, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as she introduced Romney at a Missouri GOP dinner.

The biggest difference between her husband and the other candidates, Ann Romney said, is that “he’s had only one wife.”

McCain has been married twice; Giuliani three times.

But the AP article makes it clear that Mormon polygamy has never been a laughing matter.

Mr. Romney’s great-grandmother, Hannah Hood Hill, the first of Mr. Romney’s great-grandfather’s five wives, wrote an autobiography that “offers an eyewitness account of the Romney family’s polygamous past.”

Hood Hill wrote of Miles Park Romney: “I felt that was more than I could endure, to have him divide his time and affections from me. I used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow. If anything will make a woman’s heart ache, it is for her husband to take another wife. …But I put my trust in my heavenly father, and prayed and pleaded with him to give me strength to bear this great trial.”

The AP article also reports:

Romney’s great-great grandfather, Parley Pratt, an apostle in the [LDS] church, had 12 wives. In an 1852 sermon, Parley Pratt’s brother and fellow apostle, Orson Pratt, became the first church official to publicly proclaim and defend polygamy as a direct revelation from God.

Not noted in the article but pertinent to this discussion, Parley Pratt was murdered in 1857 by the legal husband of Parley’s 12th wife.

The other Pratt brother, Orson, almost lost his life due to polygamy as well. Returning from serving as a missionary in Great Britain, Orson learned that while he had been away, Joseph Smith had attempted to wed Orson’s wife, Sarah, in plural marriage. Distraught, Orson disappeared. Later found alive by a search party, the Prophet claimed Orson had tried to commit suicide (see Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, A Book of Mormons, 211ff).

No, polygamy is not a laughing matter. Mr. Romney does seem to recognize that at times. The AP article observed:

But in serious moments [Mitt Romney] has called the practice [of polygamy] “bizarre” and noted his church excommunicates those who engage in it…

This raises a question for me. According to the AP article,

Romney’s great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, married his fifth wife in 1897. That was more than six years after Mormon leaders banned polygamy and more than three decades after a federal law barred the practice.

Miles Park Romney had moved to Mexico in 1884 to escape the US laws prohibiting polygamy, and died there in 1904. His 1897 plural marriage to Emily Eyring Smith likely occurred in Mexico; therefore, US federal law would not have applied. However, Mexico had enacted its own laws against polygamy in 1884, 13 years before Miles Park and Emily were married (Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, 132 fn#1).

Be that as it may, this 1897 plural marriage was definitely against the stated law of the Church. As Mitt Romney noted, the LDS Church excommunicates those who disobey the Manifesto and engage in polygamy against Church policy. So I wonder — were Mr. Romney’s great-grandfather and his post-Manifesto wife ever excommunicated from the LDS Church?

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
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7 Responses to Mormon Polygamy: Comedy or Tragedy?

  1. Neal says:

    Well that’s it for me! I demand immediate passage of a “Truth in Genealogy” law so tht we can once and for all have this kind of important policy issue on the table. Think what we could learn! What are these people hiding? Any great great great grandfather in the McCain line horse theives? How can we expect him now to be tough on crime? How many generations do you think we need to go back to find Giuliani’s sneaking across the border to a neighboring Italian city looking for “work”. How can we trust anything he says on immigration. I WANT TO KNOW!!! This is scintillating and important and critical to determine who has the right policies, ideas and values to solve the critical issues of hte day. Join me in demanding “Truth in Genealogy” TODAY!!!

  2. Sharon says:

    I agree with you, Neal. Mitt Romney’s ancestors’ marital status doesn’t seem important to his qualifications for President. But I’m hoping readers recognize that the focus of this blog article is not Mr. Romney’s presidential candidacy; rather it is about the serious and devastating nature of historic Mormon polygamy.

  3. Neal says:

    Sharon, thanks for recognizing that I was having fun with the article. The analysis of historical and current polygamy is both interesting and important. Historical research shows that polygamy was difficult for many women, also for many men. That is why divorce laws in early Utah were remarkably liberal for the time, and it was not unusual for women in polygamous marriages to divorce. It is also fair to say that many women in polygamous marriages were quite contented, and were strengthened by the relationships they had with the other wives, particularly at times when the husbands were called out on missions and other duties.

    Sharon — you are always thoughtful and balanced, and I enjoy reading your posts.

  4. Ed says:

    I think the question is Romney’s leadership ability. If he were President, couldn’t the ‘Prophet’ override his decision? And attacking McCain is ridiculous. 5 years in a P.O.W. camp. That’s integrity.

  5. Neal says:

    Interesting question, Ed. I think that we need look no further than Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader in the Senate and also a faithful Mormon. His political views are often the polar opposite of other faithful Mormons in public office. If the Prophet were really the kind of “puppet master” controlling the votes and opinions of Mormon politiciamns, how can we explain that kind of diversity? Do we even know the Prophet’s political leanings? Years ago when his 2nd counselor was in the State Legislature, it seems to me he was a Democrat. So other than the very public positions the church takes on certain moral issues (not inconsistent with other Christian churches positions on the same moral issues) we don’t know exactly where they stand in the political landscape. Issues of Romney as President have got to be focused on his policies, principles and track record. He should win or lose our vote on those issues, just like everyone else.

    As for Sen. McCain – there is no doubt that everyone — Mitt Romney included — respect him immeasureably for his service and sacrifice. But this is a rough and tumble campaign and he know it as much as anyone. Ann Romney was simply repeating a funny observation made originally by Chris Matthews on Hardball that Mitt Romney, the Mormon, was the only major candidate that had only been married once.

  6. Eric the Red says:

    I’m not attempting to be bellicose, Neal, but your “humorous” comments didn’t come across as all that funny, and I am a humorous guy. Obviously, Sharon took your comments seriously as did others. Although I didn’t catch the humor, I did see your attempt to mitigate the main thrust of Sharon’s article. The point I took from your humor was that no one should be kept from running for president because of black sheep in the family tree. If the black sheep in Romney’s family tree were polygamists, then they ruled the barnyard! I also didn’t get the impression that Sharon thought you were “having fun” with her article. As she mentioned, the devastating effects of historic Mormon polygamy are a serious issue.

    Lo, and behold, I get on the blog this morning and we are talking about whether Mitt Romney will have his strings pulled by a Mormon prophet if he were elected president. How far we have wandered!

    Mitt Romney has been quoted as saying that the practice of polygamy is “bizarre” and that people are excommunicated for practicing it. Although the second is true, both statements are grossly misleading about the history of Mormon polygamy. I have never talked with a missionary, nor have I read any official church material, that has called the practice of polygamy bizarre. Bruce McConkie calls it an “ennobling and exalting principle” and states that this holy practice will commence after the Second Coming (Mormon Doctrine p578). Granted, he goes on to say that if someone practices it in this day he is committing gross wickedness. LDS leader George Cannon said in 1884 that any hope for a new revelation concerning polygamy was a vain thought. He went on to say that only apostasy would lead people away from this divine and holy practice (JOD, vol. 25, 321-322). Wilson Woodruff, Jospeh F. Smith, and others practiced polygamy after the Manifesto (no Jack Mormons they). Woodruff married a new wife in 1897! Many of the first presidency authorized polygamous marriages as late as 1904 (Quinn, “Plural Marriages After The 1890 Manifesto,” lecture, 1991). So were these men committing bizarre acts? Were they committing gross wickedness? Were they ever excommunicated? These were some of the issues that I believe Sharon was hoping would be discussed.

    Obviously, you are free to write whatever you want, I think these threads would be better served if we stuck to the main points of the opening articles and engaged in open and honest debate about these issues.

    P.S. Thanks, Eric and Bill for the excellent source material in your response to Mormonism 201

  7. After areading Richard Bushman’s book thoroughly, and from looking at the Abrahamic sources with which Joseph Smith’s life was flooded, I’m starting to form the idea that Joseph was trying meticulously to follow the example of Abraham, and that his different forays into implementing plural marriage and / or sealing of other adults to himself were part of the picture. The way he implemented it in ways that caused such tragedy in people’s lives, including his own, makes me wonder if that wasn’t an important part of its purpose.

    My beginning outline for a paper on the subject has these words in the introduction:

    Based on Richard Bushman’s insightful information, arranged in order of dates and clustered around key occurrences in the history of plural marriage, it revolves around Joseph’s gradual discovery of Abraham as a pattern …

    As things drew to critical point at end of his prophetic career, he realized that the marvelous blessings being unfolded to the Saints of the endowment, sealings of families for eternity, and the second anointing as an assurance of heaven, needed to be qualified for by a supreme Abrahamic test.

    Joseph concluded that Abraham’s family had met a supreme Abrahamic trial or test, and that people in Joseph’s time would be asked to overcome a test of equal proportion. Not too far distant from that thought would be the idea that Saints in Joseph’s day invited to participate in the Abrahamic experience would each have some almost insurmountable Abrahamic test to overcome, customized to their own personality.

    See it at this link:
    and let me know what you think.

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