"Regeneration--Now and Evermore!": Mormon Polygamy and the Physical Rehabilitation of Humankind
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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.1 (2001) 40-61



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"Regeneration--Now and Evermore!":
Mormon Polygamy and the Physical Rehabilitation of Humankind

B. Carmon Hardy
California State University, Fullerton

Dan Erickson
Claremont Colleges


Latter-day Saint belief in polygamy, although introduced in the 1830s and 1840s, was not publicly defended until the church relocated from the Midwest to the Great Basin. Its practice by thousands of Mormons in the late nineteenth century may have constituted the largest prescribed departure from traditional monogamy in Western civilization since the Middle Ages. 1 Determined to present their views as persuasively as possible, church leaders commenced a campaign in 1852 to convince the world that what they were doing was not only scriptural but practical and scientific. 2 Most accounts of Mormonism's polygamous experience [End Page 40] grant only incidental importance to the naturalistic arguments used. And those who acknowledge the unique biological powers ascribed to plural marriage generally fail to integrate Mormon claims with sexual assumptions common at the time. 3 While revelatory command was always significant to them, nineteenth-century Mormons borrowed extensively from guidebook authors, scientific thinkers, and sexual theorists of the day. Their purpose was to convince others that only through the substitution of polygamy for monogamy could men and women be restored to their pristine capacities and the world prepared for the millennium.

To understand their claims, one must recall that Mormon plurality arose in a period when American society was regularly addressed by reformers contending for domestic revolution. 4 John Humphrey Noyes, whose familial reconstructions followed the Nauvoo period of Mormonism by only a few years, said that secular and religious reformers were at that time "wonderfully similar" in their goals. 5 Both Robert Dale Owen and Charles Fourier, who together inspired scores of communitarian attempts, sought [End Page 41] greater freedom in marital experimentation--Fourier specifically commenting that polygamy was "a practice which cannot in any case be prevented." 6 Another spokesman of the 1830s frankly asked why men should not be permitted to take additional women into their households, if first wives approved, and thereby diminish the number of husbands "ranging about." 7 Whether contending for an end to all sexual activity, as did the Shakers, or inviting the freedoms associated with Frances Wright at Nashoba, the times were filled with proposals for sexual innovation. 8

Millennialist expectations ran parallel to the visions of utopian claimants, many declaring that the end of the world was near. The Saints were part of a numerous company urging attention to signs and wonders as evidence that the fateful time was at hand. "Prepare ye, prepare ye," they were told in an early communication from heaven, "for that which is to come, for the Lord is nigh." 9 As one scholar described it, early nineteenth-century America was "drunk on the millennium." 10 Here, as in other areas, Mormons were in close stride with the nation's religious mood. And, as with others, early Mormon belief in an apocalyptic, premillennial Second Coming gradually yielded to postmillennial meliorism. It was a halting, never fully completed transit, with the Saints alternating between cataclysmic and gradualist expectations, but one in which they always saw themselves as builders as well as heralds of a perfected earthly kingdom that Christ would inherit at His coming. Efforts to create a "new heaven" were closely dependent on making a "new earth." And, as we shall see, many Mormons were certain that only plural marriage could fully redeem the world from its decadence. 11

Finally, utopian and postmillennial notions often united with an enthusiasm for scientific achievement, mostly in the area of biological theory, [End Page 42] reflecting what James Whorton in his discussion of antebellum health reform called "Christian physiology." 12 Because of the possibilities for directed mutation, Lamarckian suppositions were especially popular. Belief that conscious reproductive choice would bring improvement to the human species logically comported with both utopian and postmillennial expectations. While Sir Francis Galton did not invent the term "eugenics" until 1883...