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.


4 Responses to “The Legacy of Polygamy”

  1. Rachelle Pew Says:

    cool! thanks for sharing!

  2. Ross David H Says:

    I think it’s similar to the general principle I use when considering the actions of historical figures (e.g. Thomas Jefferson). I don’t judge them by the norms and standards of my day, but rather by those of their own culture (or sub-culture) and time. In other words, not as a scalar, but as a vector. Were they headed in the right direction? Did they work within the standards of their own time in a way that tended towards honesty and compassion? When they departed from the standards of their own day, did they do so in a way that tended towards more humane and compassionate behavior towards others, or less? In this light, for example, Thomas Jefferson looks pretty good. It’s also how I would like my own actions to be judged by my own great-grandchildren.

    So, when thinking about an ancestor of mine who practiced polygamy (I don’t have any that I know of, but I do have ancestors from Nauvoo so who knows), I would not be judging them for polygamy, but rather how they practiced it. From your family stories, it sounds like they would look good from such a standard as well.

  3. I love this. Very well written.

  4. Annette Says:

    I totally agree with what you have to say about the legacy those ancestors left us…the idea that we love God and are willing to make whatever sacrifices He needs us to make. That has certainly had a huge impact on me as an individual, and guides so much of what I choose to do. I had never heard the details about Ellen Ashman Webb…how did I miss those stories? I thought I’d read everything I could get my hands on when it comes to family history!

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