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Winter 1996, Volume 13.1



William A. Wilson

The Lore of Polygamy: Twentieth-Century Perceptions of Nineteenth-Century Plural Marriage

William A. Wilson (Ph.D., Indiana University) directs the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University. He is the author of
Folklore and Nationalism in Modern Finland (University of Indiana Press, 1976) and On Being Human: The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries (Utah State University Press, 1981).


On 25 September 1890, his church near collapse from unrelenting repressive and punitive measures brought against it by the federal government, Wilford Woodruff, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), issued a Manifesto declaring that the church would discontinue its practice of polygamy (Alexander 2-15). Six years later, on 4 January 1896, Utah became the forty-fifth state admitted to the Union. The forces at play bringing Utah into the Union were, of course, many and complex; but had the Mormon church persisted in encouraging polygamous marriages, Utah could never have become part of a country in which deeply-held Victorian convictions about marriage prevailed.

Hinted at in the 1830s, practiced more freely in the 1840s, and declared boldly to the world in 1852, the Mormon practice of "plural marriage" did not fade painlessly from the scene with the issuing of the Manifesto. After all, many once-reluctant followers of the practice had come to believe that the establishment of plural marriage was part of the "restoration of all things" preparing the way for the Second Coming of Christ. Turning away from part of the restoration seemed for some tantamount to rejecting it all. As a result, not until church president Joseph F. Smith issued a "Second Manifesto" in 1904 demanding compliance with the terms of the original document did many Mormon faithful cease resisting the change; and not until that time did the church itself begin taking severe punitive measures against those who continued to advocate or practice polygamy (Quinn; Alexander 60-73). Once allegiance to the new order had largely been won, comment on plural marriage generally disappeared from the church's official discourse, almost as though the practice had never existed. As R. Carmon Hardy notes, "[Contemporary] references to polygamy are conspicuous by their absence. Discussion of the principle—except to say God directed a small number of church members to enter it in the past, a commandment since suspended—is carefully avoided" (338).

If the official church has avoided public statements on polygamy, the scholarly community has not been reluctant to fill in the gap, finding in the practice of plural marriage a rich field for historical/sociological research and producing over the years a spate of scholarly articles and books on the subject (for recent examples, see Foster; Quinn; Alexander; Embry; Van Wagoner; and Hardy). Missing from this wealth of scholarship, however, has been any serious study of the folklore of polygamy.

Most major historical events will generate a body of folk narratives which grow out of these events, reflect people's attitudes toward them, and help determine the way future generations will view them. It would seem logical, then, that one of the preeminent events in Mormon history, the practice of polygamy, would have produced a rich vein of Mormon folklore. That certainly seems to have been the case. Yet, except for one chapter in Saints of Sage and Saddle: Folklore Among the Mormons by Austin and Alta Fife, published nearly forty years ago (1956), and an occasional reference in a scholarly article or address, students of Mormon folklore, myself included, have generally avoided the subject of polygamy—partly because, given the sensitive feelings surrounding the subject, discretion has at times seemed the better part of valor, but mostly because many Mormons have been reluctant to share with researchers family stories about the polygamous doings of their ancestors. For example, in a statement that may typify many collecting endeavors, one researcher wrote: "One lady that comes from a large family of polygamists didn't want to talk about it at all; she said she would be telling stories that belonged strictly to her family. 'We don't know the circumstances of those people,' [she said], 'so we don't talk about it'" (144.vithis and all subsequent numbers are Brigham Young University Archive filing numbers).

This reluctance notwithstanding, folklore collectors during the past twenty-five years have found people who would talk about polygamy and have collected from them and deposited in the Brigham Young University Folklore Archive a body of polygamy folk narratives substantial enough to warrant at least preliminary analysis.

Given the richness of traditional historical sources on polygamy and the paucity of folk collections, one might ask why it is important to trouble oneself at all with these circulating narratives kept alive by the spoken word and, unlike more traditional historical documents, subject to change in each new telling. To answer that question, we must first understand what kinds of insights into Mormon life these folk narratives will yield.

Unfortunately, the stories tell us little about the past, about the actual practice of polygamy from its inception until its demise at the turn of the century. The reason for this is twofold. First, during polygamy days no one bothered to collect and preserve the stories that most certainly were being circulated orally. Second, unlike more stable historical documents such as diaries and letters, folk narratives undergo constant revision as they are passed by word of mouth from person to person and from time to time—the very fact that causes some scholars to view them as unreliable sources for serious study. In reality, it is the changes the stories undergo that make them such valuable documents; for the changes occur not at random but according to the cultural imperatives of the communities in which the stories circulate. There is nothing mystical about this process of narrative re-creation. Members of a community, in accordance with their present needs, selectively remember stories they hear about past events and then, as they retell the stories to others, add, drop, and enhance details (often unconsciously) that reflect and reinforce their present attitudes.

Addressing this process of communal re-creation of folklore, Elliott Oring discusses folksong transformation in words that could apply equally well to our orally transmitted polygamy narratives:

If a song [or a polygamy narrative] is to continue, a generation must find something in it worth continuing while altering aspects which are no longer consonant with its own values and beliefs…. A song cannot be adequately conceptualized as the reflection of some ancient past [or in our case, the polygamous past]. At any point in its history, the song is the distillation of generations of cumulative modification. If it can be said to reflect any group at all, perhaps it can only reflect the group in which it is currently sung—that group which has for conscious or unconscious reasons) maintained and transformed elements from the past in the creation of a meaningful, contemporary expression. (Oring 10)

In other words, a folksong or folk story, though born in the past, lives in the present and will often tell us more about the values of the world in which it currently circulates than it will about the one in which it originated. Thus, while polygamy oral narratives may teach us very little about the actual practice of polygamy during the nineteenth century (for that information we must turn to traditional historical documents), they will teach us a great deal about what contemporary Mormons, or at least those contemporary Mormons who tell the stories, believe about that practice. And why is it important to know this? Because most of us are moved to action not by what really happened in the past but by what we believe happened. The study of polygamy lore is useful, therefore, because it will bring contemporary perceptions of polygamy to light and will help make clear not only what some present-day Mormons think about polygamy but why they think and feel, and sometimes act, as they do.

I should make clear that while folklore is communal in nature and reveals concerns common to a group, it would be a mistake to assume that a folk community is some sort of monolithic organization whose members all think and act alike. Obviously, while most Mormons know about and are concerned with polygamy, many of them hold quite different views about the subject. It is these different views about a common concern which will, as I try to illustrate, give shape and meaning to the narratives.

The lore of polygamy extends across a broad range of subjects, but most of the narratives cluster around two major themes: relationships between members of polygamous unions and conflicts between the Mormons and those deputy marshals determined to enforce anti-polygamy legislation—conflicts, that is to say, between the "cohabs" and the "deps." Because space is limited, I must regretfully leave the cohabs and the deps for another occasion. I say "regretfully" because these trickster tales, still told with gusto and delight, raise interesting questions about the paradoxical thinking of some contemporary Mormons who in one breath cheer their ancestors' successful attempts to outwit officers of the law, thus avoiding arrest and prosecution, and in the next give solemn discourses about "obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."

But while sometimes less exciting, the stories about interpersonal relations are more important because they go directly to the heart of the questions that interest many Mormons today: How did wives respond to their husbands' decisions to take additional wives? How did wives in the same polygamous marriage get along? How did several wives and one husband live together in a conjugal relationship? It should be noted here that of the 186 polygamy narratives in the folklore archive, 171 were collected by women and only 15 by men. More important, 134 of the narratives were told by women and 48 by men—in 4 accounts the gender of the narrator was not recorded. Clearly, then, we are dealing with a body of stories told primarily by women to other women and expressing women's, rather than men's, concerns. According to one collector, "the men joked more about polygamy than women did" (144:5). Whatever the attitudes of contemporary Mormon women toward polygamy (and these attitudes vary greatly), few of them, a century now beyond the Manifesto, find in the subject little cause for laughter.

Most stories having to do with the decision to begin practicing polygamy focus on the first wife's accepting or opposing her husband's taking another wife. Sometimes she accepts "the principle" when her husband is exhorted in a vision to take another wife—in one account a reluctant husband is "visited by an angel with a drawn sword to help persuade him that polygamy was indeed a divine principle" (L3.; sometimes the first wife accepts polygamy after being counseled to do so by a church leader; and sometimes she herself, after earnestly praying for guidance, urges her reluctant husband to obey the gospel and begin courting another woman. For example, after receiving an affirmative answer to such a prayer, one wife queried her husband, "Well, when are we getting married?" (L3.

These stories are matched by a larger and usually more vigorous body of narratives in which reluctant women resist and sometimes successfully avoid polygamous entanglements. For instance, when one husband tells his wife that he has had a vision encouraging him to marry again, she hits him with a wet dish rag (L3. A single young lady, tells her already-married suitor that only when she has seen the same vision he claims to have seen, will she marry him (191.7). One spunky wife, upon being informed by Brigham Young that her husband should take a second wife, throws a pot of hot coffee in his face. Brother Brigham later tells the husband to forget about polygamy, commenting, "You have all the wife you can take care of" (L3.

Other women have found still more ingenious ways of opposing plurality. A good sister returning from a nursing assignment "came upon her husband and the hired girl on the bank of the canal in each other's arms. When she saw them, she quickly walked up behind them and pushed them both in the canal" (L3. Upon discovering that her husband was dressing up to go courting, one hot-tempered wife took an ax to all the spokes in his buggy wheel and thus kept him at home (348:12). When a not-very-intelligent husband would tell his much-more-clever wife, "I think I need another wife," she would give in to his wishes and then offer to throw a party in honor of the occasion. "Then she'd go out and throw this big party and spend all his money, and then when it came around to having the funds for a second wife he wouldn't have any (L3. Still another clever wife agreed that her husband should take a second wife and helped him prepare to go courting. She pressed his clothes, helped him put on a clean shirt, and brushed him down. Just before he left, she sat on his lap to give him a big goodbye kiss and then, so the story goes, "Peed, . . .soaked him through, through everything" (L3.

Though most stories in this category focus on the wife's attempt to avoid polygamy, an occasional narrative will reveal similar attempts on the part of the husband. According to one account, a man who had been encouraged by church leaders to take a second wife and whose first wife had given her permission sought out and proposed to the most popular girl in his stake, a beautiful young lady in her twenties. When she refused his proposal, as he had hoped she would, he was then able to tell church leaders he had tried to follow their counsel but had been turned down (348:8).

Though some women avoided polygamy, others did not and were consequently forced to come to terms with their husbands' other wives. A number of stories highlight the harmony that developed in some of these relationships. In the main, these accounts focus on acts of cooperation and love between the wives and claim that children of the different wives made one big, happy family and that it was frequently difficult to tell which child belonged to which wife. The following two accounts are typical:

He had two wives who lived together in the same house. The second wife didn't have any children, but the first wife had a large family of eleven children. All of the children called the other wife "Aunt." The second wife was a hard worker and a helper to the family. She was a lovely person and never was envious. The love and warmth and unity of this family is certainly to be admired. (144.9)

You know, he didn't want to practice polygamy, but she said, "You have been told to take a second wife, and you must do it." So the first and second wife lived side by side, with a gate between the two yards. They worked with the same cows on the same farm. There was never any difficulty or unkindness—oh, maybe sometimes the children quarreled, but never due to being the first or the second family. (253.20)

Occasionally the wives' cooperation takes a humorous turn, as in the following story:

[He] was the undertaker and also quite a drinking man. Every Saturday night he would come home in his mortuary rig and attempt to get down. At this point his three wives would emerge from inside the house and carry him in. (253.13)

More frequent and more dramatic are the stories revealing conflict and disharmony. In some accounts the first wife dominates the second and third wives, especially if they are much younger, and treats them almost like slaves. In other accounts the wives are on more equal footing but simply dislike one another. They throw rocks at each other, break out each other's windows, and mistreat each other's children. As the following story makes clear, a principal cause of disharmony was the awareness that the husband favored one wife over the others:

I heard once about three wives who were helping their husband push a new piano up the hill. They stopped to rest for a moment at the top of the hill and the husband said, "You know, this piano will belong to Martha." "What about us?" the other two said. "No," said the husband, "it's for Martha alone." So the two wives jumped up, pushed the piano down the hill, and watched it bust into a thousand pieces. (253.26)

This last story hints at the third, and most dramatic, body of narratives, those in which the wives in a polygamous marriage must compete with each other for the romantic or sexual attention of their husband. The stories that focus on the role of the husband in these relationships often show him as a reasonably fair-minded person who tries not to favor one wife over another. But it is an attempt that often fails, as human nature carries the day. For example:

A Danish man had two wives that died before he did. When the old man himself was on his deathbed, he called in the bishop. He told him that he had faithfully lived the law of polygamy and had loved both his wives. But then he requested, "When you bury me between my two wives, could you tilt me toward Tildy?" (191.6)

By contrast, the narratives that focus on the role of the wife, and these make up the bulk of the stories, show women striving rather desperately to win the sexual favors of their husbands. In one polygamous household the wives worked together to fill their needs. They would make a big pot of beef stew broth and boil it down for about two days until all that was left was pure vitamins; they would then feed this to the husband so he would have strength enough to satisfy them all (L3. In another household, the wives were in direct competition. One of these wives would place a key in the lock of her door when it was her turn to spend a night with her husband; another wife would frequently take the key and put it in her lock, thus stealing an extra turn. (L3.

The most poignant of these stories stress the anguish and sometimes anger felt by the first wife as new wives are brought into the household to share her husband's marriage bed. When one man already married to two women was asked by church leaders to take a third wife, the first wife said that "she was glad...because now at last the second wife would know what it was to share" (253.12). The following story symbolizes the unhappy romantic reversal that supposedly occurred in the lives of many first wives:

This man had one wife, and he was going to take a second one. The first wife went with the couple to the temple to see them married. They lived a day or two from the temple. On the way there the man slept with his first wife in the wagon, and his little fiancée slept on the ground under the wagon. But on the way back from the temple, the wives reversed positions. The second wife slept with the husband in the wagon and the first wife slept under them. (191.3)

In this story the first wife submits without protest to her fate. But in a number of stories, like the following two, the wife fights back:

A kind and mild man received instructions to get another wife. The first wife, knowing that this was a principle of the gospel, willingly accepted the situation and helped prepare for the wedding. She prepared the nuptial chamber and the wedding dinner. [Her husband]…and his new wife went upstairs, and [she]…was left to do the dishes. Then something happened. As she was doing the dishes and thinking things over, she got madder and madder. She went outside, picked up a hatchet, rushed upstairs, and chopped the door down. The new wife was so terrified she left and never returned. (191.4)

[This woman] had twelve children. One day [her husband] brought this new woman home. Well, she didn't want it. She even had to give up her good bed and go upstairs with the twelve children. That made her good and mad. So she got together the twelve children and got them each to take turns filling the big chamber pot, if you know what I mean. The ceiling of the bedroom downstairs was made of planks of wood with big slats in between. She dumped the chamber pot between the planks onto the bride and groom below, took the twelve children, left the house, and never came back. (253.25)

The stories given above are only a small sampler of the rich body of polygamy narratives still circulating among church members. They demonstrate that of the numerous details of nineteenth-century polygamous life contemporary Mormons could have developed into stories, they have selectively remembered, and probably embellished, those events that show their ancestors, especially the women, struggling to enter or resist polygamy, that show sister-wives living sometimes in close harmony and happiness and sometimes in sharp conflict with each other, and that reveal the sexual tensions sometimes arising from polygamous marriages. Once again, these stories draw a picture of polygamy not as it really was but as many of those telling the stories believe it to have been.

Whether the stories told emphasize the harmony or the disharmony possible in polygamy will usually depend on the attitudes of the narrators. When asked about their own feelings toward polygamy, a few tellers of these stories responded with statements like these: "It is a basic doctrine of the Gospel, and we all must live it for our eternal exaltation," or, "It was a very difficult but a very sacred law." Other narrators expressed an opposite view. Said one: "I don't think I could live it today. I'm too jealous"; and another: "Polygamy would be hard to take. I couldn't share a husband. I'd just say, `You can have him; I don't want him'"; and still another: "Polygamy is for the birds. I can't believe it was instigated by the Lord." Those informants who see polygamy in a favorable light will usually be drawn to and will tell stories that focus on harmonious and happy polygamous relationships. These stories will, in turn, reinforce their beliefs that polygamy was a noble institution. And those who view polygamy negatively will tell the stories of disharmony and heartbreak that will reflect and reinforce their beliefs.

While many Mormons defend polygamy, then, and tell stories that support their views, other Mormons do not. In the stories collected thus far and in the comments of many informants a negative view of plural marriage is clearly manifest. At least two circumstances of the contemporary world help explain this point of view.

First, in the eyes of nineteenth-century Mormons, plural marriage and celestial marriage (eternal marriage) were one and the same thing—that is, no one could expect full exaltation in the kingdom of God who had not accepted and practiced polygamy. No matter how difficult polygamy might be to live, it was not to be taken lightly. Because of this conviction, argues Jessie L. Embry, "most polygamous families learned to solve problems and control conflict because they believed what they were doing was required of God." "Because they believed they were obeying a higher commandment of God," continues Embry, "Latter-day Saints practicing polygamy had fewer negative experiences than have generally been reported" (193-94).

But even before the publication of the Manifesto, the equation of celestial marriage and plural marriage had begun to pull apart (Hardy 50), and the faith described by Embry that made difficult circumstances bearable had begun to weaken. Continuing this trend, many Mormons today will draw careful distinctions between plural and celestial marriage, arguing that exaltation depends only on being sealed to a mate for time and eternity, not on a plurality of wives (Hardy 54, 297-98, 356). This separation of plural marriage from celestial marriage has created an unresolved dilemma for many faithful church members. On the one hand, they still view Joseph Smith as a prophet who spoke the will God; on the other, with eternal marriage (which they willingly embrace) and polygamy now seen as two different practices, neither being a prerequisite for the other, they are hard-pressed to explain why a revelation instituting polygamy was ever necessary. The resulting ambiguity has also caused some of them to look on polygamy with a much more critical eye than they could have or would have during the time it was practiced. Thus many believing Mormons will applaud the woman who pushes her husband and his girlfriend into the canal or who chops down a bedroom door and frightens away an intruding new wife. For loyal, believing Mormons during polygamy times, such applause would have been unthinkable.

Second, Lawrence Foster has argued that men and women who lived polygamy sublimated "their sexual impulses into the arduous group enterprise of settling Utah and building up Zion" and that early polygamy was thus a means of "de-sexualizing and redirecting the husband-wife relationship so that relations between the sexes became first and foremost goal directed" (209-10). Mormons may still be goal directed, though less dramatically so, but few would argue that they achieve their goals by sublimating their sexual impulses. Under the system Foster described, Mormon women may have been able to share their husbands with other women, and Mormon men may have been able to divide their affections among several women. Such sharing and dividing in today's liberated world would, in my judgment, be profoundly difficult. Hence in the world constructed by the stories recounted here, the first wife, who almost always appears in a favorable light, gets the best of the second wife (or woman), who is usually seen as an interloper, and of the husband, who is depicted as a callous individual with little regard for his first wife's feelings. When asked why she liked such stories, one informant responded, "Because they got what they deserved." However well polygamy may have worked during the nineteenth century—and it often worked better than we think—many modern Mormon women, I believe, identify with the first wife in these stories, applauding her way of handling a problem they themselves would not want to live with and taking comfort from the fact that even "back then" the demands of poetic justice were sometimes met.

In conclusion, because people tell stories about those things that interest them most or are most important to them, and because these stories change constantly to reflect and reinforce shifting attitudes and to meet current needs, one of the best ways to better understand the hearts and minds of a people at any particular moment is to look at their folklore. Until more polygamy stories have been collected and a larger data base has been created, the conclusions reached here must remain tentative. While different Mormons, as noted, hold different views on the subject, from the stories collected thus far it would seem that these contemporary narrators are most concerned with what they perceive to have been the tensions, especially the sexual tensions, growing out of polygamy; that they view plural marriage in something less than a happy light; and that the characters in the stories they most admire are not just those who endure—and they certainly do admire them—but also those who resist or avoid polygamy altogether. The world constituted by the narratives can best be explained not by turning to the historical reality of polygamy but by looking instead at contemporary views of celestial marriage and by examining contemporary beliefs about proper sex roles.

As Utah moves into its second century of statehood, as the dramatic events that embroiled polygamous Mormons and their monogamous fellow citizens in heated conflict recede farther into the background, as those Mormons touched intimately by polygamy diminish in number (I was raised on stories of my grandmother and her polygamous mother hiding out in the chicken coop to evade federal law officers), and as Mormon church membership continues to grow, increased by converts who have had no connection with polygamy, perhaps interest in polygamy will fade and polygamy oral narratives will cease to circulate, replaced now by stories related more directly to the contemporary world. My own view is that eventually the stories will disappear, but much more gradually than we might expect. The stories of nineteenth-century plural marriage, judged now by quite different twentieth-century standards, foreground current issues of vital concern today—the proper roles of men and women in marital relationships and appropriate roles for women in society in general. One thing is clear. As Utah Mormon women continue to seek their place in the sun, the stories they tell about polygamy will continue to provide a good measure of their feelings and beliefs.



Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1980-1930. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Brigham Young University Folklore Archive. Harold B. Lee Library.

Embry, Jessie L. Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987.

Fife, Austin and Alta. Saints of Sage and Saddle: Folklore among the Mormons. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1956.

Foster, Lawrence. Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Hardy, B. Carmon. Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage. Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Oring, Elliott. "On the Concepts of Folklore." In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres. Ed. Elliott Oring. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1986. 1-22.

Van Wagoner, Richard S. Mormon Polygamy: A History. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989.

Quinn, Michael D. "L.D.S Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Spring 1985):9-105.


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