The Legacy of Polygamy

January 4, 2015

Since the Church posted several articles on polygamy in the topics section of the web site (see Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and other links on that page) I’ve seen several responses, many of them negative. My perspective, as a descendant of many people involved in the practice, is more positive.

Research has shown that hearing stories about family members is one of the best ways to provide children with resiliency and strength to face challenges, and in this respect I have been richly blessed. In particular, my maternal grandmother was especially good about collecting and passing on family stories. I would like to begin to explain my perspective on the legacy of polygamy by sharing some stories she told about her maternal grandmother.

When Edward Milo Webb Jr. proposed to Ellen Ashman, he informed her that the bishop had told him that he would be expected to practice plural marriage, and if she didn’t think she could handle that she should decline his proposal. She decided she wanted him anyway, and a few weeks after she turned 16 they were married.

A couple of years later the bishop reminded Eddie that he needed to take another wife, so he began courting Sarah Elizabeth Carling, who lived a few blocks away. While he was gone, Nellie would play “I’ll Hang my Heart on a Weeping Willow Tree” and other songs of abandoned lovers on her piano so loudly that they could be heard throughout the neighborhood. But she treated Sarah graciously when he finally did marry her, and they became close. When Eddie began courting his third wife, Charlotte Martha Maxwell, Sarah came to Nellie distraught and asked what they were going to do. Nellie couldn’t think of anything to say but, “How do you think I felt when he married you?”

There was a lot more to Nellie’s life than polygamy, though. She was born near Manchester, England, and at age five began working half days in a factory. She celebrated her tenth birthday while crossing the Atlantic in a ship that nearly sank during the voyage, and did sink during its attempted return to England. After traveling by wagon and by foot to Fillmore, Utah, she helped her father build a house out of rocks they gathered on their lot. After her marriage they moved to Orderville and donated all their property to the United Order. When the Order broke up, they pioneered in Woodruff and Snowflake Arizona, and then later in the Mormon colonies of northern Mexico. When the revolution broke out in Mexico, they had to flee back to the United States. She outlived her husband and six of her fourteen children.

Polygamy was just one of the many challenges and trials she faced and overcame. Late in her life she was asked what she would do if given the chance to live her life over and not share her husband. “I would do the same thing over again,” she answered. “The love of even one of my husband’s other children is worth it all to me.”

I’ve focused on Ellen Ashman Webb in this post, but I could tell many similar stories of several other women I’m proud to count among my ancestors. And while it wasn’t, of course, at all the same, polygamy presented challenges for the men involved as well. A narrative that implies that my forefathers were selfish exploiters is inaccurate, and one that portrays my foremothers as helpless, passive victims is extremely inaccurate. They were men and women of strong faith and a firm commitment to do whatever necessary to build the church and kingdom of God.

That, for me, is the legacy of polygamy: a powerful example of willingness to make great sacrifices for God and his kingdom. They were richly blessed for their obedience, and their descendants continue to receive resulting blessings down to the present. I regularly thank my Heavenly Father for my heritage. I’m trying to pass on this legacy to my children, and I hope my descendents look on me as favorably as I look on these men and women.

 

Addendum: I showed my mother an earlier draft of this post, and she said I should point out that the Webb family was closer than a lot of others. She said, “I remember Mother telling us how all the children insisted that they didn’t have any half-siblings; all their family members were whole.” Some of the other stories about plural marriage in our family weren’t so harmonious. Just like with monogamous marriages, how well they worked out depended on the people involved.

Narratives

July 5, 2014

A while back in the comments on a blog I read someone described the church as “rigid and Pharisaical” and my first response was “are we talking about the same church?” After further reflection I think I have an idea where this description might have come from.

As human beings, we try to find meaning in everything that happens, and our main tool for doing this is to construct stories to organize our experiences. Since we’re also social animals (most of us, anyway) we share our stories, and some often repeated plots or themes become societal narratives that people use to construct their own stories: instead of piecing our own experiences into unique stories, we find a narrative that’s similar in some way to what happened to us and then tailor our story to conform to that general plot. One example where this seems to have happened is in early Roman legends. Georges Dumézil showed that many incidents in early Roman “history”, such as the founding of Rome or the expulsion of the Tarquins or the career of Marcus Furius Camillus closely parallel myths found in other Indo-European societies. These were probably actual historical events, but as the stories were told and retold people subconsciously altered them to fit the pattern of other similar stories they knew.

Many years ago I noticed that when religious leaders are portrayed in movies or TV shows, they always fall into two stereotypes: liberal, “tolerant”, anything-goes, God-is-love types, and strict, hypocritical, self-righteous types. My personal experience with LDS church leaders doesn’t match either stereotype. Instead, they tend to be strict but humble and loving. After all, if you really love someone and understand that true happiness comes from obedience to God’s laws, you’re not going to say “oh, that’s OK” when they start committing sins.

However, by nature we have a strong tendency to make our experiences conform to the narratives in our society, so many people who see the church’s strictness interpret it as rigidity and enforced conformity. This is unfortunate, because then they are less likely to listen to prophetic counsel and make choices that lead to happiness and exaltation.

Societal narratives arise from human nature and are important tools for helping us make sense of our lives, but when followed too closely and uncritically they can lead us to misinterpret our true experiences.

Amanda’s blog

June 30, 2014

After posting her emails home for eight months or so, I finally added Amanda’s mission blog to the links at the side.

Iraq

June 14, 2014

In November 2012, after the election, I kept thinking, “This will lead to bloodshed.” By which I meant, that Pres. Obama’s policies would eventually lead to armed conflicts in many parts of the world. I wish I had been wrong, and I’m afraid this is just the beginning.

Women power

May 1, 2014

For a non-Mormon view on the power of women, sci-fi author Sarah Hoyt: What a Mess of Pottage.

Priestesshood

April 27, 2014

I like this: Zion in Her Beauty Rises: Current Discourse on Women and the Priesthood by Ballard, Dew, and Oaks

Tim Bray, Punishing Peter Jackson:

On a recent 10½-hour flight I watched The Desolation of Smaug. Now we have to work out how to punish Peter Jackson for this travesty.

(If you don’t know who Tim Bray is, he helped develop a lot of web technologies. Also, he worked on the project that computerized the Oxford English Dictionary, an enterprise that Tolkien also worked on many decades before digital computers came along.)

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