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Looking at plural marriage and Mormons from vantage of women

On a cold day in 1870, thousands of Mormon women gathered in a Utah meeting hall to defy the US Congress. Astonished journalists listened as the women defended polygamy, which by then adherents openly practiced. Soon afterward, Utah’s Mormon-dominated territorial legislature granted women the right to vote — well in advance of efforts elsewhere.

In “A House Full of Females — Plural Marriage and Women’s rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich rewinds the tape, seeking to understand how Mormon women arrived at this seemingly paradoxical moment. The result is a book that movingly portrays believers’ early struggles while leaving certain mysteries frustratingly intact.

Ulrich, a Harvard professor and former MacArthur fellow, is a gifted historian whose earlier works forged new paths in women’s studies. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Midwife’s Tale,” she concentrated on the late 18th century diary of one woman. “A House Full of Females” follows various families and individuals and relies on the letters and diaries of multiple writers. Ulrich likens her approach to a patchwork quilt, but while the metaphor is apt, readers may find it hard to keep track of who’s who — and especially of who is married to whom.

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Ulrich, a past president of the Mormon History Association, is a descendant of 19th century migrants to Utah, whose own forebears practiced polygamy. She is after fresh insights on how plural marriage arose and was put into practice, but the documents she mines are often maddeningly opaque. The writers may have been naturally reticent about sexual matters. But they surely derived some of their silence from Joseph Smith, the movement’s secretive founder.

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Regarded by his followers as a prophet, Smith cited dreams and visions as the basis of his new theology. An angel, he asserted, had led him to the buried tablets that became the Book of Mormon. Later dreams produced a raft of doctrines, including plural marriage, which Smith committed to a secret document in 1843.

Hierarchical as well as secretive, Smith had formed an inner circle of male leaders, whom he urged to join him in “sealing” extra wives to themselves. Ulrich demonstrates that at first, the idea repelled his followers. With its gradual adoption, many of the women (including Smith’s legal wife) and even some of the men remained troubled. Writing in 1846 to her husband, who had proposed taking another wife after his return from a mission, Mary Richards objected: “. . . there is no such a thing as happiness known here where a man has more than one” [wife].

Yet with varying degrees of reluctance, many women went along. Some saw plural marriage as a path to economic security or an escape from abusive husbands. Others saw “marrying up” in the hierarchy as the road to greater rewards. The church promised exaltation after death, but Mormon women accepted that it was to come through their husbands. Their chief duty was to become mothers.

In Ulrich’s account, the Female Relief Society emerges as an incubator of women’s power and political agency. Launched with Smith’s approval, it became a means of distributing aid to the poor but also transforming household work such as sewing and weaving into commercial activity. Though not making them equal, the society raised women’s status within the church organization. With men frequently absent on missionary assignments, the women often had to function on their own and did so both singly and cooperatively.

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In 1852, after the Mormons had left their Illinois base under pressure from non-Mormon residents and resettled in Utah under Brigham Young, church leaders proclaimed plural marriage as official doctrine. Their open stance both threatened the church’s very existence and became a major obstacle to statehood.

In 1890, after years of fighting federal attempts to extinguish plural marriage, the church finally gave way. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemns the practice, including by unsanctioned fundamentalist sects that occasionally still make headlines.

Joseph Smith’s vision emerged during a period of national religious ferment that included the Second Great Awakening. A plethora of movements rose and fell as Americans sought assurance of salvation. Against this backdrop, Smith’s achievement is all the more striking. Mormonism would not have survived without the pious women it initially gathered together. How they remained so devoted to its patriarchal structure, and its demands for submission, is an enigma that perhaps no one can pierce. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has not explained these resourceful women so much as rendered their belief more miraculous.

A HOUSE FULL OF FEMALES:

Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Knopf, 512 pp., $35

M.J. Andersen, a former member of the Providence Journal editorial board, is author of the memoir “Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner.”