Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: "Mormon Polygamy, A History" by Richard S. Van Wagoner

This is the second installment in a Utah History book review series on 19th Century Mormon Polygamy. (For readers less familiar with Mormon history, it's important to note that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ended the church-sanctioned practice of polygamy in 1890.)
A few weeks ago (Oct. 6, 2012), I drove through the Mormon pilgrimage to Salt Lake City's Temple Square. My sister and her boyfriend had tickets to the Saturday afternoon session of the LDS Church's biannual General Conference, I dropped them off, and then headed home to watch the conference live on LDS.org. Hoards of Latter-Day Saints filled the cross-walks and sidewalks that afternoon, and as ever, these Sunday-best dressed pedestrians tried to avoid the pamphlets and shouts of antagonists on the lawn outside the temple gates. You know what I mean, the folks wielding signs with slogans like, "Joseph Smith was a Satanist," or "The Book of Mormon is a fraud!"

The anti-Mormon movement is a old phenomenon, it started almost as soon as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded. Because of the enthusiastic complaints of early 19th Century excommunicants from the Church, history is rife with reports of LDS scandal and hypocrisy, easy fodder for anti-Mormon literature. The question is, how is any student of history to know truth from fiction?

History may not be as precise a science as physics or chemistry, but real historians are trained to analyze and evaluate historical evidence. For example, they may present several accounts of an event, and emphasize that a first-hand account is more reliable than a second-hand account, a story told the day it occurred is more reliable than one told in retrospect several decades afterward, and the version expressed by an outsider is perhaps less-informed, but more objective than the versions told by those with strong positive or negative bias.

That's what I like about Richard S. Van Wagoner's Mormon Polygamy, A History. In the body and end-notes of his book, Van Wagoner frequently offers analysis of the sources he presents based on the criteria I've described in the previous paragraph. He also adds scholarly objectivity by exposing both sides of the story throughout the book.

I particularly love the chapter, "Women in Polygamy," in which Van Wagoner quotes many 19th Century polygamous women, allowing them to share their own reflections about polygamous life. In this chapter, Van Wagoner argues that life in polygamy was not the "harem, dominated by lascivious males" portrayed by journalists in the late 1800s, and neither was it always the happy ideal plural wives felt compelled to report in public (Mormon Polygamy, A History, pages 89-104). He uses, among other well-chosen quotations, this fascinating statement by Zina D. Jacobs Smith Young, plural wife first to Joseph Smith and then to Brigham Young, and the third General President of the Relief Society:
Much of the unhappiness found in polygamous families is due to the women themselves. They expect too much from the husband, and because they do not get it, or see a little attention bestowed upon one of the other wives, they become sullen and morose, and permit their ill-temper to finally find vent . . . a successful polygamous wife must regard her husband with indifference, and with no other feeling than that of reverence, for love we regard as a false sentiment; a feeling which should have no existence in polygamy  (New York World, November 19, 1869; quoted in Mormon Polygamy, A History, page 101).
More About Van Wagoner

Richard Van Wagoner
Although Van Wagoner (1946-2010) was an audiologist, not an academic historian, by profession, his historical works have won awards from the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association.

It's important for readers to know that Van Wagoner is not without his own bias. He was a fifth-generation, life-long Mormon, and BYU graduate. But, personally, that's one of the things I loved about the book--I'm always curious about how Mormon scholars, sifting through thousands of positive and negative accounts of LDS history, come through it all without loss of faith. Although I've said here that Van Wagoner considers both points of view in his book, he doesn't treat them equally. Overall he argues that a holistic study of Joseph Smith's perspective and experiences, leads readers to see him as a man of ethical leadership and moral integrity. For example, Van Wagoner first reveals statements made in the 1830s and 1840s in which Joseph (already married to Emma Smith) was accused of indecent proposals and extra-marital sexual relationships. Then, in addition to showing the anti-Mormon bias that accompany some of these stories, Van Wagoner says:
Accounts such as these have led some historians to conclude that Joseph Smith was licentious. But others have countered that these stories merely indicate his [early] involvement in a heaven-sanctioned system of polygamy, influenced by Old Testament models (Mormon Polygamy, A History, page 5).
Note: While neither the Church nor Joseph Smith went public about polygamy until the publication of the 12 July 1843 revelation on Celestial Marriage (D&C 132), the first widely recognized plural marriage of Joseph Smith was to Louisa Beaman in 1841. There are also several reports that Joseph Smith was teaching the spiritual principle of plurality of wives to some of his friends in church leadership as early as 1831 (Mormon Polygamy, A History, page 3).

What other LDS scholars say about Van Wagoner

In my search to know what other faithful Mormon historians have said about Van Wagoner's work, I happened upon a couple of interesting articles published on scholarly websites associated with Brigham Young University.


The first article I found in BYU Studies, a quarterly print and electronic journal. The review is written by another famed LDS historian, emeritus BYU professor, Thomas G. Alexander. Alexander calls Mormon Polygamy, A History, a "generally accurate summary of previous published studies." He's pleased that Van Wagoner's work agrees with Joseph Smith's own interpretations of the origins of Mormon plural marriage. He commends Van Wagoner on some of his data interpretations--like admitting that findings on the nature of Joseph Smith's relationship with Fanny Alger are inconclusive. Alexander also points out something that Van Wagoner missed, a piece of the Fanny Alger story that couldn't possibly be true when time and place are fully considered:
Thomas G. Alexander
He [Van Wagoner] cites an alleged interview in the St. George Temple between an unnamed person and Heber C. Kimball, who is said to have introduced Fanny's brother John as the brother of Joseph Smith's first plural wife. This would have been an extraordinary feat since the St. George Temple was not dedicated until 1877 and Heber C. Kimball died in 1868. (Thomas G. Alexander's Review of Mormon Polygamy, A History; BYU Studies)
He suggests that Van Wagoner's work is a step above the work of Mormon authors who, in defense of polygamy, over-do it with "outmoded and indefensible rationalizations," such as spreading the idea that plural marriage was limited to only 2 or 3 percent of Mormon marriages, or that polygamy was necessary to provide husbands for excess females while there is significant historical and sociological evidence that these ideas are just not true. Alexander also calls Van Wagoner's findings, "moderate," which I assume is a compliment.

When Alexander calls the book, "generally true," I take that to mean, it's worth reading, but take it with a grain of salt. His overall opinion of the book seems to be that it's nothing new, nothing special, just a relatively mature compilation of stuff that's already been published. (Of course all of this is old news to the Mormon history world, Van Wagoner's second edition of the book was published in 1989.) Alexander emphasizes that there remain many unanswered questions about 19th Century Mormon Polygamy.



The second article I want to mention is a Maxwell Institute publication. It's a mostly negative review of Van Wagoner's award-winning book on early LDS Church leader, Sidney Rigdon, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess. (They didn't have a review on Mormon Polygamy, A History.) So, although this review has nothing to do with Van Wagoner's research on Mormon polygamy, I'm passing this along, because it was helpful to me to see what the Maxwell Institute scholars have said about Van Wagoner.

In this Maxwell Institute review, the authors praise Van Wagoner for arguing that "Rigdon played a crucial role in the development of early Mormonism and that his contribution was diminished in the wake of his unsuccessful bid to shoulder Mormon leadership after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith." However, they disagree with what seems to have been Van Wagoner's big scholarly project, posthumously diagnosing Rigdon with bipolar disorder. Meanwhile, it seems the reviewers' main concern with Van Wagoner's writing is this:
He intends to expose the "warts and double chins of religious leaders" and "warns all of us that we must ultimately think for ourselves rather than surrender decision-making to others, especially to those who dictate what God would have us do" (Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess, pp. x, 457—58). In this way Van Wagoner casts Sidney Rigdon as an object lesson calculated to censure modern Mormons for what his related Journal of Mormon History essay calls "group gullibility" (Van Wagoner's Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Biographical Excess.) 
I laughed when I read that statement. After reading his polygamy research, Van Wagoner strikes me as a skeptic with resilient faith, whereas these Maxwell Institute reviewers seem (to me) to have exaggerated him as a dissident. But what do I know? I haven't read Van Wagoner's work on Sidney Rigdon. I'm just a lady who who had a very positive reaction to Mormon Polygamy, A History.

Note: The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship is a branch of Brigham Young University that issues research fellowships, produces lecture series and publishes Mormon studies research in journal and book form. The institute is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

My critique of the book

Although I mentioned (above) my admiration for Van Wagoner's evaluation of his sources, I must criticize him for not doing so consistently. There were a great many sources for controversial accounts that he does not evaluate. For example, In the chapter "Women in Polygamy," he frequently uses quotations from a magazine or newspaper called, "The Anti-Polygamy Standard," but he does not offer background information on the origin or nature of the publication. He also fails to comment on how the publication's presumably strong anti-polygamy bias might affect the legitimacy of the quotations found in it (journalists exaggerating the truth to prove a point, yellow journalism, etc.)

I also disliked the book's unclear parenthetical citation format (more like a non-format.) I'm not saying all historical books should be in MLA, APA or Chicago style (Did those exist in the '80s?), but I am saying that they should have some consistent manner of documentation that clearly leads the reader from the parenthesis to it's correlated reference in the bibliography. Some of the parenthetical citations in Van Wagoner's book contain abbreviations, or other shortened, confusing references. I often had to skim through the paragraph again in order to find all the clues I needed to find the source in the bibliography. Additionally, there are some sources (like newspaper publications and personal letters) for which there are no bibliographical entries at all. Van Wagoner gives the date, the name of the publication or recipient, but nothing more. This is extremely problematic.

Overall, I recommend this book for critical thinkers. Van Wagoner presents historical accounts, reminds readers to question sources, and while he makes clear his own interpretations, he leaves room for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. As far as my own conclusions are concerned, I have to agree with Thomas Alexander, there are many questions about the beginnings of Mormon polygamy that historians have not yet adequately answered.

1 comment:

  1. Good review! I highly recommend Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling for added context to the early origins of polygamy. Also, regarding the Maxwell Institute, there have been some changes this year regarding the tone there. See for example http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2012/07/nothing-to-apologize-for-part-i/

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