Pollyannaism about polygamy: Martha Nussbaum on Mormon history

Picture of Martha Nussbaum

Picture of Martha Nussbaum

Back in May in a blog post on the University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog, Martha Nussbaum offered some thoughts about both the history of Mormon polygamy in the United States and about attitudes toward polygamy more generally. I’m sympathetic to much of what Nussbaum says here but think that she’s wrong both about that history and about the more general attitudes in play.

Nussbaum critiques the negative views of American public opinion about Mormon polygamy, saying that

Mormon polygamy of the 19th century was not child abuse. Adult women married by consent, and typically lived in separate dwellings, each visited by the husband in turn. In addition to their theological rationale, Mormons defended the practice with social arguments – in particular that polygamous men would abandon wives or visit prostitutes less frequently. Instead of answering these arguments, however, Americans hastened to vilify Mormon society, publishing semi-pornographic novels that depicted polygamy as a hotbed of incest and child abuse.

While Nussbaum does acknowledge the patriarchal nature of (Mormon) polygamy, I suspect that she is both painting too rosy a picture of the history of Mormon polygamy, as well as mis-diagnosing the root of the distaste for polygamy in the popular mind. Such distaste runs deep alright, but the problem is not with polygamy per se. Below the fold is a bit more on each of these points, including some YouTube videos and transcripts, both serious and more humorous.

I’m no expert on the history that Nussbaum discusses, and who knows, I may just be suffering from the very biases that she points to in popular opinion. But I suspect that very few people know all that much about that history, which is largely unspoken of, and insofar as ignorance feeds into public opinion here, Nussbaum’s complaint is on the money. In any case, I encourage readers to have a look at Videofactmaker’s Many Wives: Vows of Silence, posted in seven <10 minute episodes on Youtube, which make for compelling viewing. (The quality of sound in the last is bad, and the series is, it seems, still being finished, so we don’t get to the end of what becomes an intriguing narrative. Damn it.) Even if public opinion is not based on a knowledge of this kind of narrative, the narrative itself reveals much I suspect about the depth of everyday, patriarchal domination of women under much Mormon polygamy, and this itself calls in to question Nussbaum’s pollyannaism about polygamy.

You can get the links to Parts 2-7 by following the links from YouTube. Transcript at bottom of post.

Regarding the root of the problem of negative public attitudes here, Nussbaum elaborates by concluding with the following:

When people are insecure, they cling to the “normal” and vilify those who choose to live differently.

Again, I suspect that this is right, but it is polyamory, rather than polygamy, that is the real culprit in the popular mind. Polygamy, as a legal or quasi-legal practice, one associated closely with definitions of the family and parenting practices, becomes the focus of vilification, much as gay marriage has been. But the underlying intolerance and distaste is for plural sexual-emotional love relationships, much as the underlying intolerance is of homoerotic love relationships in the case of gay marriage.

Why is this a difference that matters? For one, polygamy is more deeply affected by patriarchal cultural values, as reflected not only in its North American history but in its manifestation as polygyny in the vast majority of cultures in which it is found, than is polyamory. Of course, it doesn’t have to be so affected, and there are still polygamous relationships that are consented to freely, and that involve little or no male-dominance. But when laws and traditions are made and maintained by men, as they typically have been in polygamous cultures, polygamy becomes polygyny, and the prospects for free consent and equal standing between the sexes vis-a-vis polygamy are diminished. In polyamory, by contrast, free consent is still constrained by the usual for-the-boys institutions, but not those that specifically convert the abstract idea of polygamy into the concrete practice of polygyny. As a result, it’s much easier for polyamory to steer clear of the extremes of gendered oppression. Bottom line for Nussbaum, or anyone wanting to explore this: separate polygamy from polyamory, and don’t take on the burden of offering apologetics for the former in the name of opening up minds to the possibility of the latter.

And if this is all too much to bear, let’s finish off on a lighter note, though one that picks up on some of what I think ties polygamy more closely to patriarchy than Nussbaum seems to think. (Again, video footage with no captioning.) Thanks to the Church of Geometric Sensualism, and a hat tip to Dale Anderson, who gives the link in a comment on Nussbaum’s post:

Transcript of first video:

Narrator: Tell me what each of these buildings are that are surrounding us.

Elder Thelma Morgan: Ok, we call this church here the Hedrickites’ congregation and they’re still part of the restoration movement, because they consider Joseph Smith to be their founder. But they are the owners of this 200 or 300 (?), which is still part of the temple property. The temple across the street here is our second temple. It’s dedicated to peace. It has a spiral here that replicates a spiral on a seashell. Very impressive, I think. This building is the Mormon visitor centre. Also, their property goes clear on up the street.

Narrator: Why are there all these different branches? The RLDS church, then there’s the Hedrickites, then the mainstream church, why were there all those splits?

Elder: There was things that were entering into the church that caused a lot of dissention. For instance, the idea of polygamy. This branch of the restoration movement never complied with polygamy, and the people that did practice polygamy had come from pagan backgrounds.

(title screens)

Narrator: Carthage, Illinois. 1844. A shot pierced the breast of Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Latter Day Saints. His martyrdom climaxed a decade of persecution against a new group of Christians, who were despised for their practice of polygamy. Chased out of Missouri and Independence, far west, and brutally slaughtered at Haun’s Mill, the Mormons found themselves without a leader. Even though many believe that Joseph Smith designated his son as the next prophet, Brigham Young claimed to hold the keys to the priesthood and led the majority of the Latter Day Saints westward to an isolated Zion in Utah, where he could institutionalize the practice of polygamy. Despite the fact that the Mormons were isolated in frontier America, it was not long until Federal troops arrived to persecute them. In exchange for statehood in the new territory, Wilfred Woodruff, the president and prophet of the Latter Day Saints issued a manifesto banning polygamy from the faith in 1890. Despite the manifesto and a specific provision in the fledgling state’s constitution, many continued living plural marriage and were imprisoned for practicing their beliefs.

By the 1930s, the chasm between the mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons had become so wide that the mainstream church turned on those who followed early church doctrine. Now the church that had previously remained indifferent to polygamists practiced a new policy: if a member of the church were found to be practicing plural marriage in the morning, he or she would be excommunicated by the afternoon.

In 1935, and again in 1944, polygamist leaders in Salt Lake City were rounded up and arrested with the blessing of the mainstream leaders. They were tried, convicted, and jailed for the crime of having more than one wife. In 1953, Arizona governor Pile focused his attention on a branch of fundamentalist Mormons in the town of Shortcreek on the border of Utah and Arizona. The scars of the raid on Shortcreek would spread across the entire body of fundamentalists. This time, it would not only target the leadership, but all of the men in the community. Awash in confusion and disarray, this previously cohesive group, which had been united in the common principle of celestial marriage, fractured along lines of doctrine and priesthood authority. These fractures pit urban polygamists against rural polygamists in a battle for religious power.

Now separate and distinct groups, with their own prophets and religious counsels coalesced across the west. Dr. Rolan Allred, who had been imprisoned in 1944 for polygamy, became the prophet of one group in Salt Lake City. Allred’s place in fundamentalist history was secured in 1977, when followers of rival prophet Erval LeBaron assassinated him. By spilling the blood of Rolan Allred, the LeBarons believed they were purifying his soul, a practice known as blood-atonement.

I knew that polygamy had long ago existed in my own Jewish heritage, but a thousand year ban on its practice having just recently expired. Being a transplant to Utah, the only thing I knew about its polygamy was its infamy: the raids and the murders. When I became friends with a woman who had lived plural marriage, I wanted to know more about this controversial and taboo relationship. My collaborator and I began with only one question. Are polygamists only serving the commandments of their heavenly father or did the men enslave the women to their dark and insidious desires?

Transcript of second video:

(singing: polygamyyyyy, let’s do it!)

Domegon: We’ve been joined in a group marriage here in Placentia for six months. Bob here is the last new husband to join us.

Bob: Hi!

Karen: We’re really glad to be married to him!

Dom: We’ve been asked by the Church of Geometric Sensualism, which is of course how we all met…

Kim: We’re all devoted followers of… (whips out picture) Father Toby.

Dom: We’ve been asked to put a camera in our house to give you an idea of what a Geometric Sensualist polygamist marriage is all about. We will now pray. We pray that this documentary will touch your hearts and convince you that Geometric Sensualism is the only path in this world.


Bob: Sharing responsibilities in a group marriage makes life a lot easier.

Karen: Bob and I prepare the family meals, while Marla does the shopping.

Bob: Domegan, Joe and Kim do the cleaning.

Karen: While Doug recovers in the bedroom from his punishment for lying to his wife.

Bob: This distribution of labor makes things a lot easier. I have two daughters that we are raising.

Karen: These are Bob’s daughters from a previous marriage to a woman who was not a Geometric Sensualist.

Bob: I was married to a lazy, hateful bitch, who never did anything around the house. What a change to join a polygamist marriage!


Doug: I did!

Kim: No you did not!

Doug: Yes I did!

Kim: No you did not!

Dom: What is going on here?

Doug: I said don’t use my ATM card!

Kim: You did not say that!

Doug: It was a holiday! Payday was an extra day off!

Kim: He did not say that!

Doug: Of course I did! I didn’t have any money!

Dom: Ok, I’ve had enough of this, you are both being inharmonious, do you understand me?

Kim and Doug: (sheepishly) Yes, Domegon.

Dom: I need you to reconcile! Do you have your bibles? Turn to page 237. (to the camera) This is a reconciliation ritual for two subagons inharmonious in the marriage. (to the subs) I need you to perform the ritual.

Doug and Kim: Ommmmm

Dom: Very good! Very good! Very good!

Doug: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I didn’t say don’t use the ATM card. I’m so sorry. I’m such an asshole.

Dom: Doug, all is forgiven.


Dom: Ok Doug, you are here with me and Marla in bedroom 3.

Marla: But I was with Doug last night!

Dom: That’s alright, Marla. He was covering for Kim. Kim, you’re still sleeping alone until you recover from that yeast infection.

Kim: I know.

Dom: So that means Karen, you are with Bob.

Karen: (excitedly) But where are we, Domegon, if we aren’t in here?

Dom: You and Bob are in the master bedroom.

Kim: Can I watch someone?

Karen: Yes! You can watch us!

Marla: You can be here with Doug and me!

Kim: Uh, no thank you, Marla.

Dom: Alright people, let’s get with it.

(Doug makes sexy tiger noises at Marla. She kicks him off the bed.)


All: (praying) Give yourself over to the Domegon. He is your guiding force. God speaks to you through him. Submit to him sexually and in all earthly matters, for sex is not an earthly matter, it is an act of and for God.

Dom: (reading) You may glimpse God around the corners of your sexuality-his true shape, not the distortion of the 3rd dimension as applied to a poly-dimensional being. Sexaliticus 14:45. Alright, what do we think that means? Doug.

Doug: I think it means we should think of our Domegon as THE God of the household and that we should not question him or rebel against him.

Dom: Very good, Doug!

Doug: And if we’re punished by him, then we should not be ashamed to enjoy that.

Dom: Thank you, Doug! Anyone else?

Karen: We should pursue our sexuality without restraint.

Dom: That is very good, all of you. That is really very good. Let us say the closing prayer.

All: Father Toby, keep us safe and bound to the sacred tenets of Geometric Sensualisooooommmmmmmm.

Dom: Very good.


Doug: I just feel that, now that Bob’s here, no one wants to fuck me anymore.

Bob: Doug, I never meant to make you feel like that.

Dom: Now Doug is feeling insecure, because Bob is in the marriage. What do you all want to say to Doug?

Karen: Well, I do prefer Bob sexually, Doug. I think that’s been pretty obvious. But Marla sleeps with you, despite lack of preference, so you should feel good about that! Maybe Kim would sleep with you, too?

Doug: Kim has had a yeast infection for almost six months now! She can’t sleep with anyone!

Kim: But you make more money than Bob does, Doug. That’s important to the family. It’s important to me.

Dom: Kim, I don’t think you should think that way! I think you should think about that attitude and we’ll talk about it later.

Kim: Yes, Domegon.

Dom: Marla, give Doug a Kleenex. (Marla drops Kleenex on Doug’s head; he gets upset) Doug, Doug, Doug, you’re very important to this marriage because you take discipline well. I know that when I discipline you there’ll be no anger or resentment. You’re a very important role model to this marriage.

Doug: Thank you.

Dom: Now I want you to go to the bedroom and lay out several lengths of chain, a collar, four cuffs, a D-ring, four clips and a cat-o-nine-tails.

Doug: Ok.

Karen: I’ll help you, Doug.


Dom: We hope by opening our home to you, we’ve opened your hearts to Geometric Sensualism.

Karen: This religion has something for everyone!

Dom: Stop by a missionary office today and see what it has for you. Happy living and happy loving!

3 thoughts on “Pollyannaism about polygamy: Martha Nussbaum on Mormon history

  1. The narrative, “Many Wives: Vows of Silence” is chock full of misinformation. When I saw the snippet that claimed that the Mormons who practiced polygamy had “pagan” backgrounds, I knew this was going to be entertaining. Unfortunately, this six minute video has enough bogus material to convince me not to waste my time watching the other installments. It’s pretty clear that the author’s source of information is largely fundamentalist folklore. Mormons weren’t driven from Missouri or Illinois because of polygamy. Mormons weren’t practicing polygamy in Missouri and the demands for Mormons to leave Illinois were published in the newspapers of the day and didn’t bring up polygamy. (Accusations of polygamy were printed in 1844, but Mormons weren’t expelled until 1846.)

    Also contrary to the claims of the video, fundamentalists weren’t arrested or convicted for having “more than one wife.” They were convicted of violations of the Mann Act (crossing state lines for immoral purposes) and for sending obscene material through the mail. It was impossible to get a conviction for “polygamy” because the government had to prove more than one marriage. Legally, they could only be convicted for shacking up and the government has rarely sent people to prison for that.

    The video claims that the Mormon Church gave up polygamy for statehood, but that’s so simplistic it’s laughable. The Mormon Church had been disincorporated, its property confiscated, and its leadership in prison or in hiding through provisions of the Edmunds-Tucker law. Mormons had lost most of their civil rights (including the right to vote.) After all appeals had been exhausted in the Supreme Court, the president of the LDS Church issued a proclamation that the Church had ceased performing plural marriages. That proclamation, commonly called the “Manifesto,” came about as the LDS Church agreed to be subservient to the US Government. Statehood didn’t enter into the equation for another 6 years.

    The claim that fundamentalists were a cohesive group until government persecution is another myth–as is the concept that fundamentalist polygamy was the same as Mormon polygamy. The leaders of fundamentalism were, without exception, frustrated religious anarchists. Many have proved to be pedophiles as well. None of them ever held any positions of leadership in Mormonism. As contrasted with the Mormon practice of plural wives-which was among consenting adults for the duration of their lives–the fundamentalist version has proved to be much more serial in nature with wives (often children) moving to other husbands or being transferred at the whim of their leaders.

    The video also claims that Rulon Allred (my uncle) was murdered by Ervil LeBaron as a function of so-called “blood atonement” to save Allred’s soul. That’s a recurring canard anytime someone in Mormon culture is murdered. Ervil LeBaron was an evil megalomaniac responsible for over 30 murders of people who disagreed with him or his policies. He ordered the murder of Rulon Allred because he had been stymied in efforts to kill his younger brother Verlan LeBaron and he believed Verlan would be an easy target at Allred’s funeral.

    The history of Mormon polygamy isn’t shrouded in secrecy–but it is cluttered with claptrap by ignoramuses like the fellow who produced the video above. Although I haven’t read Nussbaum’s comments, I have a sneaking suspicion that she’s got a better handle on it than you have allowed.

    Alma Allred

  2. Thanks for the comment, which provides much food for thought. The video link was provided not because I take it to be authoritative (how would I know?), but because of the stories that it leads into, which are at the heart of video piece as it develops. It may well be that the narrative there, told through the voices of some polygamous wives, is also misleading, though I don’t think that it’s power turns on its being representative or typical. And I don’t intend its posting here either to perpetrate serious misrepresentations or to fan the flames of already intolerant attitudes. But I’d be curious what others think if they get beyond the first vid in the series.

  3. After reading Alma’s comment I was very hesitant to watch the video. But, as a transcriber for the site, I thought I would. As I did, I noticed that many of her claims are the ones that are misleading. For example:

    – first, the author appears to be making attempts to use legitimate sources. You’ll notice that the person being interviewed in the beginning is an Elder of the RLDS, which is hardly a fundamentalist branch.

    – the author never claimed that Mormons were driven out of Missouri for polygamy.

    – the Mann Act (also known as the White Slavery Act) prohibited transportation of women across borders for “immoral purposes”. While the wording does not include polygamy, it does seem fair to interpret the act as having been designed with the intent of curbing polygamy, as a way to get around being able to prove marriages. So, saying that they were prosecuted for polygamy is not a huge error.

    Furthermore, whatever version of polygamy this video represents, the fact remains that the CLDS believes–and more importantly, embodies in its institutions–the idea that women are inferior to men. So Nussbaum’s claim that adult women are consenting to this practice is a grave oversimplification at best and ignores much evidence we have about the internalization of oppressive norms.

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