Review Essay by Stephen Carter
Stephen Carter is the director of publications for the Sunstone Education Foundation.
What is it that bothers mainstream Mormons about polygamy?
Carol Lynn Pearson asked this question in a 2014 online survey and received more than 8,000 responses, 51 percent of them from active Mormons. Often the respondents left stories of their own encounters with polygamy in an answer box at the end of the survey.
Few of the respondents had actually lived in an earthly polygamous marriage. Rather, they had been haunted by polygamy’s ghost: by the stories of a Mormon ancestor who had lived the Principle, by the belief that they would have to live in a polygamous marriage in the Celestial Kingdom, by the pain of experiencing family connections being questioned and severed.
“[Eighty-five] percent of the stories expressed sadness, confusion, pain,” Pearson reports. “Sometimes as I would read, my nervous system reported emergency!—and my hand wanted to reach for the telephone. . . . I needed to have a witness. I needed to hear another human making those little sounds of sadness, of disbelief.”
It was the sheer volume and potency of these stories that moved Pearson to write The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and the Heaven of Mormon Women and Men.
Reading through the stories Pearson has collected is indeed difficult. Their essence can be captured in one quote that comes, ironically, from a man who would not consider even dating a woman who had been sealed to her late husband. “Who wants to love someone and then lose them?”
Fear of loss permeates the stories: losing one’s spouse, not just to death, but eternally; losing one’s connection with one’s parent; losing one’s family; losing one’s faith in marriage, the LDS Church, even God. “I have this vague terror,” writes one respondent, “of being erased, like I am just an interchangeable cog.”
The book shifts between chapters of Pearson’s own wrestle with polygamy—from the first time she heard about it, to the time she wrote a screenplay for the LDS Church on Joseph Smith’s life, to the polygamous experiences of her own ancestors, to an imagined conversation with Emma Smith—and chapters of the stories she collected. And all of it is rendered in the poetic, compassionate—yet passionate—voice she has used to address so many of Mormonism’s difficult issues. If you have ever struggled with polygamy’s persistence in Mormonism, you will find a wise friend here. If you have always accepted polygamy, you will find much to challenge your thinking, all of it rooted in a deep love of Mormonism.
As I read The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy, I felt like Pearson was throwing me a ball and calling me me to run with it. And the question that kept coming to mind was, “Why is it that polygamy continues to have such a deep hold on Mormonism?” Pearson lays this persistence at the door of patriarchy, methodically showing how often it constitutes the water Mormons swim in: we pray to male figures, males preside at the pulpit, males officiate in ordinances, the portraits on church building walls are almost always of males. She briefly recounts how the Relief Society, once an independent organization, was subsumed by the Church, thereby gaining male leadership. She quotes Claudia Bushman saying, “. . . there has been a net loss of opportunity and responsibility for women in the church in the last 40 years.” She also provides an entire chapter of stories of women experiencing gender inequality in LDS settings.
But I started getting the feeling that the roots of polygamy run even deeper than that.
I’ve heard it said that Mormons worship heterosexual marriage.
I don’t think that’s the case at all.
To show you what I mean, take a minute—you can even use Google—to come up with your favorite Mormon novel about a marriage. No, not a book where some characters are married or where two characters get married at the end; a book about a marriage. You’re not a novel reader? How about some Mormon movies about a marriage? Still coming up short? How about some short stories? Some biographies of Mormon marriages?
I’m hearing a lot of silence.
And you’re right, Mormon culture has produced very few creative works about marriage.1 That doesn’t sound like worship, or veneration, or even interest to me. (Now think of your favorite pioneer novel. See?)
The fact is, Mormons don’t worship marriage; we worship the productivity marriage engenders.
The moment a couple is married, we split them up so that they can focus on their particular role. The male becomes the supporter and the female becomes the nurturer. The male gets the job and the female raises the children. If they are productive at their roles (he working his way up the corporate ladder, she raising a flock of well-behaved offspring), the Church splits them further, sending them into time-consuming callings: Relief Society president, bishop. And if the couple can still make it all work, they get split further, landing in high-demand stake callings. And after all that, if they manage to keep the house clean and landscaped, the children in AP classes and sports teams, the husband in a six-figure salary with stock, and the wife on the school board, then an even bigger church time commitment is likely coming down the pipe. (Mission presidency, anyone?)
In other words, the more two spouses can accomplish performing their separate roles, the more successful their marriage is deemed.
Perhaps this is why it should come as no surprise that polygamy still has a firm root in Mormon doctrine and culture. Polygamy is the epitome of productivity. More children; more houses, more future missionaries. A kingdom is being built—and quickly! I have a few friends who are among the numerous descendants of Heber C. Kimball and his 43 wives. They’ve described their family reunions as great big parties celebrating just how productive one guy’s life was.
Mormonism teaches the sacrifice of all things for the Kingdom of God. So our history is filled with stories of men leaving their wives and children to serve the Church in far away places. Hardly a general conference goes by without a speaker telling a story about how a dedicated bishop cut short a date with his wife to help a troubled ward member.2 Marriage relationships are inevitably brushed aside when they cross paths with church duties, and our culture lauds the people who make that sacrifice. (Go ahead, see if you can find a general conference talk about how a man or woman neglected a church duty in order to be with his or her spouse—and the spouse can’t be dying!)3
Which brings me to the next ball Pearson seemed to throw my way. She suggests that the antidote to the inequities of patriarchy is not a shift toward matriarchy, but the construction of equal partnerships. This brings up the question, “What does a marriage that has left patriarchy behind and embraced the partnership ideal look like?” The first word that came my mind was “intimacy.”
“I believe in romantic love,” Pearson writes. “I have such respect, even awe for this altered state of consciousness—at its worst a kind of insanity, at its best a kind of godliness.”
“Romantic love is not a fantasy or an aberration,” she quotes from Dr. Nathaniel Branden, “but one of the great possibilities of our existence, one of the great adventures, and one of the great challenges.”
In Sunstone’s pages, Michael Farnworth has described intimacy as “sharing the inner landscape of our souls and the energies of our emotions with another person: from warm, positive feelings such as affection and acceptance, to cold, negative feelings such as anger and fear.” And this resonates with Pearson’s own definition. In an intimate relationship, “there is not master and slave or buyer and bought . . . both are created equal and equally invest and equally commit and pledge allegiance to each other . . .”
Intimacy is a fraught word in Mormon culture, though, not least because it so often stands in as euphemism for sex.4 But a look at what intimacy requires reveals something that questions the Mormon way of marriage.
A year or so ago, I stumbled across an article in the New York Times called, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.” It talked about a researcher who had “succeeded in making two strangers fall in love in his laboratory.” He did this by developing 20 questions for them to ask each other. Each question plumbed deeper and deeper into the other’s past and emotions, making the speaker more and more vulnerable.5
I asked my wife to go through these questions with me just to see what would happen. Each evening, we closed our bedroom door so that we could speak freely, and then took on one question.
Soon, we started going into charged emotional and psychological territory we hadn’t visited in years—and I started wondering if I trusted her to hold the emotions and experiences I was revealing to her. What would she do with them? (I’m certain she wondered the same about me.)
We paused a lot. We thought a lot, finding ways to frame what we were trying to say. And as we did so, I came to realize that we weren’t just revealing ourselves to each other, we were actually building new selves. We weren’t defined by our past or by our emotions, rather these things were building material that had simply lain unused for years. And now, together, we were making something new from it. And what we were making together was different than what we would have made alone. These selves were arising through the alchemy between us. The soul of one affected the soul of the other. The stories of one affected the stories of the other. The emotions of one affected the emotions of the other. The self each of us was creating was deeply influenced by the evolving self of the other.
On a discussion board I frequented many years ago, a psychologist wrote, “The thing every man wants more of isn’t sex; it’s intimacy.” At the time, this seemed to me an uninformed opinion. But while my wife and I talked through these questions, I started to understand what the psychologist meant. Sex feels good; but it was nothing compared to this intimacy: the knowing of another soul, being known by another soul, growing under the influence of one’s beloved.
It was an amazing time. Our relationship became rich and dynamic. I couldn’t wait to see my wife each day.
But we got almost nothing done. I fell behind on my work, we let our children watch too much Netflix, dinners became less healthy. Intimacy, it turns out, demands sacrifice—and it seems to produce nothing. A mowed yard does not signal an intimate couple, nor does a salary, a child’s grades, or a home teaching report.
Considering that intimacy slows down production (putting intimacy at odds with how we usually measure a marriage’s success), what is it worth? Is there a reason to sacrifice for it?
Mormon theology implies that, like Jesus, everyone who continues to progress will eventually be able to become “at one” with every other human being (and perhaps every entity). What perceptions or powers (or organs?) are required for such a state? And when you are “at one” with all beings, does that include all aspects of oneness, from agape to eros? When the restrictions that characterize our current bodies and minds are replaced by upgraded versions, when we gain new abilities, when our minds and spirits are unveiled, will we see the idea of relationship in a light completely incomprehensible to us now?
It’s very possible. As St. Paul said, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). If Joseph Smith glimpsed the heavens and the relationships possible there, whatever he perceived had to be filtered through his mortal brain. Perhaps this state of atonement—where beings are in a deep, interconnected, human-incomprehensible relationship with each other—looked to his brain something like polygamy. However, we need to remember that Joseph Smith wasn’t just marrying multiple women to a single man, he was also sealing families to families and adopting people to other families. What he was boondoggling looked kind of like an especially complicated game of red rover.
But where does that leave us as far as how we encounter our mortal relationships—especially our marriage relationships? This is a question that arises often in Pearson’s stories, many of which are about how the prospect of heavenly polygamy has affected real marriages: husbands mentally picking out their future plural wives, wives withholding affection because of the prospect of polygamy. As one of her respondents wrote: “I do know that we are not stronger for the idea of polygamy. I know my parents are not stronger for it. We are strong in spite of it.”
I’ve often heard it taught that what we cultivate in ourselves during mortality gives us head start on increasing that ability in the next life. So what does the idea of heavenly polygamy cultivate in us? Does it diffuse our willingness to focus on or invest in our marriage relationship? Does it convince us that any investment we do make will result in a negative, maybe even catastrophic, return? Does it make us feel, as one of Pearson’s respondents put it, that we are “created to be part of a giant baby making plan”? If so, it sounds like we’re cultivating low self-esteem, cynicism, and alienation.
Pearson wants the LDS Church to renounce polygamy all together. To say it was a terrible mistake. To banish it from both mortality and the eternities. But it’s possible that polygamy, like so many other religious concepts, is a metaphor pointing obliquely toward something we can’t comprehend at the moment. As you’ll probably remember from your own experiences of progressing—in a class, in a skill, in a concept—what looks bizarre or contradictory to you in the beginning can become clear and useful the more you learn. It’s not that the concept has changed; it’s that your vision has gained a dimension. So, if it is true that our relational powers will be diversified and amplified as we progress toward godhood, we probably do ourselves a disservice to confine our conception of our afterlife state to a human body embedded in a human culture. All of these mortal trappings will fall away, just as earlier perceptions fall away as we gain more knowledge.
If our mission on earth is to develop the talents we have been given, and one of the most beautiful and difficult of those is intimacy, its seems that we would want to find the best situation in which to develop it. Pearson believes that polygamy, rather than doubling or tripling a person’s ability to develop intimacy, halves and thirds it (partly, at least, because humans only have twenty-four hours in a day, and—as we have already seen—intimacy requires a huge investment).
But our culture (Mormon and Western) does not reward its pursuit. Intimacy has no measurable benefits. It does not naturally attract accolades. It’s a treasure that can only be sought for its own sake, not for any earthly or even eternal reward. And this is what Pearson calls us to do: abandon anything (even a doctrine) that disrupts this school of intimacy; abandon anything that impoverishes our marital imagination; abandon anything that makes us see each other as theological chess pieces. Our job is to learn to see each other as purely as possible, and the best place to start is in the unique medium of our individual marriages.
When we abandon the idea of heavenly polygamy, Pearson writes, “Marriages will be sweeter, with no holding back a piece of the heart just in case. A wife will sleep better, never startled in the night by the terrible thought, ‘ . . . if I die before he does. . . .’ An elderly widow will spend her last days with peace of mind and no disquieting thought of ‘ . . . I wonder if he has taken another wife already. . . .’ A husband will invest fully in his one and precious partner, with never a thought that she is not enough here or will be added to in heaven.”
- I’m betting that you thought of Jack Weyland’s novels, but then realized that they all ended at marriage. This is precisely my point. We wax poetic and novelic about how to get married, but not how to be married. Actually, I do know of some Mormon novels (Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom; Heresies of Nature, by Margaret Blair Young) and short stories about a marriage, but you’d have to dig into Sunstone and Dialogue’s archives to find them. And we should definitely include Pearson’s memoir Goodbye, I Love You.
- If we did actually worship marriage, our children would be looking at pictures of couples in the front of the Primary room each Sunday: the apostles and their spouses. We’d see the bishopric and their spouses sitting up on the stand during sacrament meeting. Biographies of great Mormon leaders would be biographies of great Mormon couples. We’d hear stories in general conferences about bishops who did not meet with the distraught ward member, but instead stayed on a date.
But that’s just the first layer. If Mormons actually worshiped marriage, Church callings would be for couples—maybe even entire families. It wouldn’t be the bishop; it would be the bishops. It wouldn’t be the mission president; it would be the mission presidents. It wouldn’t be the apostle; it would be the apostles. Because if you worship marriage, the last thing you do is take spouses away from each other. Your first priority is to make sure that the couple’s unique ability to work together and maintain intimacy is nurtured and amplified.
- Sometimes I entertain a little theory that part of the outrage women feel about polygamy comes from the outrage they’re not allowed to express at the Church for demanding so much of her husband’s time. I know, I know, the Church encourages couples to go on a date once a week, but let’s compare that to how much time the Church demands for itself. The ratio is probably church 2: spouse 1 in lower-calling circumstances and church 20: spouse 1 in the higher-calling circumstances. For example, how long does a bishop spend at his calling versus spending one-on-one time with his wife?
- I did a search for intimacy in the general conference section of LDS.org and found that of the first 14 returns I got, 12 of them used the word to refer to sexual intercourse.
- And then you had to look into the other person’s eyes for four minutes straight.