While much has been said about the heartache of plural wives living in 19th-century Mormonism, these unions could also bring happiness and unusual independence, according to a prominent religious scholar.
During a lecture Thursday before a packed house at the LDS Tabernacle, Kathleen Flake said that often only the negative side of polygamy is emphasized.
“I am always suspicious when I only hear one side of an argument,” added Flake, who teaches religious history at Vanderbilt University.
This suspicion lead her to research polygamy in Utah during the pioneer era, a time when about 25 percent of Latter-day Saints were living “the principle.”
What Flake found would probably surprise many.
Focusing on the writings of Elizabeth Kane, a Protestant who spent time in St. George during the 19th century, Flake revealed that husbands often treated their polygamous wives as individuals, not as “a collective.” Wives who died were deeply mourned, not viewed as simply replaceable. Deep love was not uncommon, but husbands were told to attend to all of their wives without becoming infatuated with one at the expense of the others.
The wives also could form strong bonds. Flake described an account of a polygamous wife crying when recalling the death of another.
Under the stresses of frontier life, Flake said that the women came to rely on each other and also developed independence from their husband.
Plural wives often ran their own households and even managed businesses, which was unusual at the time.
Elizabeth Kane’s explanation was that plural wives “were de facto widows whose husbands were often on missions or sleeping in other beds.”
But Flake said that “more than economic necessity” was behind this independence.
“The separate gender spheres within Mormonism were demarcated differently than in Protestant America,” Flake explained. “Men were principally responsible for expanding the kingdom beyond the stakes and women were responsible for maintaining the members within those stakes.”
This independence was reflected in the LDS marital vows of the time, which discuss “rights” not “duties.” This contrasts with the Methodist vows of the time, which stressed the wife’s obedience to her husband.
The Protestant ideal of marriage also focused on romance and devotion.
“Mormons stood in opposition to these ideas of romantic oneness,” Flake said.
Some 19th-century polygamous wives, like writer Fanny Stenhouse, were unhappy because they didn’t “rule in her husband’s heart.”
Flake stressed that she is a historian, not an advocate of polygamy, and she doesn’t want to “downplay these experiences.” It is also correct that records of disappointed wives “are all over the archives.”
But she said that the polygamous wives who thrived “had bigger ambitions” than their husbands’ hearts. Instead, they were answering a calling to be “priestesses” and “queens of queens” by following their religion.
Audience member Grant Lund said that Flake’s lecture gave him a new way of looking at polygamy.
“The value of polygamy was that it allowed the woman to have her agency in a very distinctive way. It had a sense of community and of individual agency,” he explained. “The thing that I’ve been amazed at in studying Mormon history is that so many of the women were such strong-willed, capable women, which they felt came out of the polygamy.”