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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 75-102

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On the Mormon Question:

Race, Sex, and Polygamy in the 1850s and the 1990s

In her preface to Mrs. T. B. H. Stenhouse's 1875 autobiography "Tell It All": The Story of a Life's Experience in Mormonism, Harriet Beecher Stowe pairs chattel slavery and Mormon polygamy as the two great evils of the nineteenth century.1 As odd as this coupling may sound to our ears, it was little more than a commonplace for Stowe and her audience. Not only did a similar Stowe pairing of "enlightened sentiment" and resistance to "degrading bondage" provide The Anti-Polygamy Standard with its masthead throughout the 1880s, but the internal logic of these (and other) linkages indexed at least four decades of wide-ranging contestation over what was referred to in the period as "the Mormon question." Beginning in 1843, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith's "Revelation on Celestial Marriage" provided the modern practice of polygamy with a divine sanction, while also "anointing and appointing" Smith as God's chosen agent capable of "sealing" individuals in marriage for both time and eternity.2 Though kept under wraps for the next decade, the practices that the "Revelation" sanctioned were known widely enough to contribute to agitation and violence against the Latter-Day Saints in both Missouri in 1838 and Illinois in 1844, including the murder of Smith himself. After the Mormon exodus to the Mexican territories of the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, the relative isolation of the Saints emboldened their new leader, Brigham Young, to relax restrictions on public discussions of polygamy. A year later and following the annexation of those territories by the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican-U.S. War in 1848, a series of Church-sponsored bids for statehood intensified national scrutiny of Mormon domestic practices, eventually leading one of Brigham Young's counselors to submit a letter to the New York Herald in 1852 in which he invoked the antislavery debates of the period, promising that the Church would soon "publish an exposition of the Peculiar Doctrine" of polygamy.3 In the resulting sermon, Elder Orson Pratt explained that polygamy was official doctrine for three reasons: first, it was divinely sanctioned by Smith's "Revelation"; second, it followed Old Testament precedents in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; [End Page 75] third, it enabled the Saints to combat the "wickedness" that "stalks abroad among the great and popular cities of Europe and America."4

Pratt's final argument is the most complicated of the three since it combines nineteenth-century urban reform, moral physiology, and evangelical Christianity. Taking his cue from southern proslavery political economists such as George Fitzhugh and William Gilmore Sims, Pratt attacked the arguments of antipolygamy reformers by holding up a mirror to the domestic practices of the northern states. Just as Fitzhugh and Sims demonstrated how northern industrial capitalism led to urban forms of vice and immorality prevented by the patriarchal oversight of slaveholders within the southern plantation system, Pratt carefully outlined the ways in which the "fallen nature" of men combined with the northern "one-wife system" so as to pave a road to "whoredom, adultery, and fornication."5 But Pratt also added to that attack a "peculiar doctrine" of his own. The Mormons, he explained, believe that souls are primordial with Creation, and that one paramount goal of earthly existence is to produce new bodies or "tabernacles" for those souls to inhabit. Since the souls that are still in search of bodies in the mid-nineteenth century must be particularly selective and deserving, one can only deduce that it is the duty of the Saints to provide them with as many "just and righteous" tabernacles as possible. "The Lord," Pratt concludes, "has not kept them waiting for their bodies all this time, to send them among the Hottentots, the African negroes, the idolatrous Hindoos, or any other of the fallen nations that dwell upon the face of this earth."6 The spiritual and economic demands...


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