Brigham Young, born June 1, 1801 in Vermont, made his mark as the American Moses who led his people, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints popularly known as Mormons, to the ” New Jerusalem” established in Salt Lake City.
Young was the second Mormon leader, elected as president after the murder of founder Joseph Smith. Mormons were persecuted wherever they settled, from upstate New York to Illinois to Missouri, to find safety under Young’s leadership in the vast territory of Utah, D first under Mexican control, then under the authority of the United States.
Young was a central figure in what was perhaps the second most controversial debate, after slavery, to inflame 19th-century American audiences. Young, who married as a young man only to be widowed shortly thereafter, was a polygamist, taking dozens of wives (although historians debate the marital status of each relationship). Young said polygamy was necessary “so that the noble spirits who await tabernacles might be begotten”, a reference to how Mormons view the afterlife. According to historian Charles A. Cannon, the debate over polygamy became central to Mormon identity, particularly after Young publicly embraced the practice in 1852. Opponents have used the institution to push back against efforts to make bring Utah into the American union.
The Republic Party platform of 1856 condemned both slavery and polygamy. President Grover Cleveland, in a speech to Congress, extolled American family values, with the obvious exception of Mormons. (Cleveland itself later outraged the American public by fathering a child out of wedlock.)
Why the indignation against polygamy? Cannon argues that by offering an alternative to monogamy, the Mormons threatened what was considered Victorian America’s ideal family life. Cannon also argues that in a suppressed era, speakers and writers who condemned Mormon polygamy were able to explore otherwise taboo notions about sexuality. Magazine writers argued that sex was man’s craziest drive and that polygamy threatened to satisfy insatiable desires.
For all the lasciviousness implied by its detractors, Mormon polygamy, according to historians, was founded on traditional Old Testament-based principles, which called for men to take multiple wives. Cannon argues that Mormon sexual ethics were in fact comparable to those of other Americans of their time. The Mormons forbade adultery. They also believed, like others, that male sperm should not be wasted in acts not intended for procreation.
Other historians see the Mormon idea of polygamy in the context of the experimentation with sex and family life prevalent in 19th-century American life. Some utopian communities have loosened the bonds of traditional marriage. Others, like the Shakers, advocated celibacy. Many Christians believed that the end times were near and that only mass propagation would save the species, which also contributed to the Mormon defense of polygamy.
While its detractors argued that polygamy encouraged male sexual excesses, its defenders argued the opposite. Mormons believed that sex during pregnancy resulted in sick babies and argued that it was better for men to have other alternatives than to impose themselves on their monogamous pregnant wives. Mormon leaders argued that men were less inclined towards the spiritual life than women, so the supply of honest husbands available was limited. They also said, true to the beliefs of the time, that men were more sexually inclined than women.
Young always wanted polygamy to be part of the wider culture. He called it “one of the best doctrines ever published”. But that was not the case. Twenty years after his death, Utah was admitted to the Union and, in exchange, Mormon leaders officially abandoned polygamy as an official practice. Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a strong supporter of traditional, monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
Ed. Note: An earlier version of this referred to “The Church of Latter Day Saints”; the official name of the religion is actually “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”.
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By: Charles A. Cannon
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