Thursday, April 23, 2015

True or False: the Men Were Dead

       It was September 2012. Mitt Romney had clinched the Republican presidential nomination. Looking to help Romney's campaign, Glenn Beck went on the air and did a Mormon Special to answer viewers' questions about Mormonism. One of the biggest questions was why the Church had practiced polygamy. To answer this question, Mr. Beck turned to history. He told his viewers about the Missouri extermination order and about how the Mormon men were slaughtered. Beck talked about how most of the Mormon menfolk were casualties of persecution in Missouri and Illinois and how the Mormon Battalion took away many of the men that remained as the Saints were crossing the plains. 

       "They were being killed, they're leaving the country, and they believed so deeply in this country that they served. So one reason for polygamy was there weren't a lot of dudes left. And everyone was saying 'we're going to exterminate you,' and they said 'we are not going to survive. We need to repopulate.' That played a role, but also women and children were left alone."1 
       This broadcast helped non-Mormon conservatives understand the reasoning behind polygamy and made the early Saints not seem so strange to contemporary Americans. But is this information correct? Was polygamy instituted to support the widows and children of the murdered Mormon men? 

Looks like it’s time to play…

Today's question: Was polygamy instituted in response to the high casualty rate of Mormon men due to the Missouri and Illinois persecutions? Were so many men-folk killed that the Lord gave their widows to the care and protection of remaining male members as plural wives?

What do you think?




       This is a classic case of well-meaning people putting two and two together and getting five. People use the "dead menfolk theory," as I like to call it, to clean up the messy issue of polygamy and give it an obvious rationale. But the idea that hundreds of men had been killed due to persecution and that the Lord instituted polygamy to take care of that issue takes a pretty distorted view of history. Still, the theory remains popular. Glenn Beck isn't the only one to give this explanation of polygamy. I remember at least one occasion on my mission when my companion and I told the exact same story to a questioning investigator. It's a popular myth, but a myth nonetheless.

       From some of the stories we hear about the early Mormon persecutions, we might start to assume the mobs were slaughtering Mormons left and right. But the casualty rates are actually somewhat low. Hawn's Mill, the bloodiest massacre of the persecution era, resulted in the deaths of only seventeen people, which included women and children.The Battle of Crooked River resulted in the deaths of three men.3 Zion's camp also had several casualties, but these were due to sickness, not combat.Mormons made a number of petitions to the government asking for redress of the grievances inflicted on them by the mobs, but when you read the petitions you can see that most members were seeking financial compensation rather than vengeance on murderers.None of this is to diminish the injustices committed against our founding members. Obviously, no group should be harmed in any way because of what they believe. We should, however, keep our facts straight so our history doesn't become exaggerated and distorted.

       "Hey! Even if casualty rates were low, couldn't there still have been a low number of Mormon men and therefore polygamy was still necessary in order to take care of the disproportionate number of Mormon women?"

       That's a nice theory, rhetorical heckler, but no. The 1842 Nauvoo census reveals that males outnumbered females in at least one district. Even when you account for deceased and underage people, the census reveals no significant gender gap.(You'd think if there was such a tremendous dearth of menfolk it would show up in the city records by 1842.) Besides, converts were joining the Saints as missionary efforts grew, bringing new men and women into the fold regularly. Plus, more importantly, Joseph Smith instituted the practice of polygamy long before the Missouri persecutions began. Joseph's first intimations of polygamy came in 1831, when the Saints had barely started settling in Ohio and a while before the Missouri persecutions had heated up.7
       So while the suffering of the early Saints was severe, it cannot be used to explain polygamy. Widowhood and orphaned children was not so great a problem as to necessitate polygamy, and there would have been plenty of other ways to care for fatherless families besides that. Polygamy is a huge topic in church history and I can't hope to cover even the basics in a single blog post, but I can tell you there are plenty of other, more reasonable, explanations for why polygamy was introduced that make a lot more sense than the dead menfolk theory. 

       When the prophet Jacob saw many of the Nephites starting to take more than one wife, he forbade them from continuing the practice. But he did give them one caveat: "For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things" (Jacob 2:30). So we see that the Lord has occasionally used polygamy as a way to "raise up seed" unto himself. While this explanation doesn't answer every question on Mormon polygamy, it explains so much more than the dead menfolk story. 

       So the next time you hear this explanation making the rounds, just remember, the dudes actually were still around, despite what Glenn Beck may say (no offense, Glenn). The Saints followed God's command because they believed it was the right thing to do, not because they had to make up for lost men.

(If you would like to learn more about polygamy in the early Church, I would recommend the excellent 2-part blog post by Mormon Nerd, 12 Myths About the Beginnings of Polygamy. You can also find answers to polygamy questions on the FairMormon website. Also, Jessie Embry's book Setting the Record Straight: Mormons & Polygamy, cited below, is a great, brief introduction to the subject. Thanks for reading!)

1. "Polygamy? Magic Underwear? People on Bikes? Glenn Discusses Mormon Myths in TheBlaze TV Special!" September 6, 2012. Accessed April 24, 2015.
2. Brewster, Hoyt W. "Persecution of a New Faith." In Martyrs of the Kingdom, 95. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1990.
3. Ibid., 94.
4. Ibid., 90.
5. "Petitions for Redress." Nauvoo Journal 5, no. 1 (1993).
6. "1842 Nauvoo Census." Nauvoo Journal 5, no. 1 (1993).
7. Embry, Jessie L. "Beginnings of Mormon Polygamy." In Mormons & Polygamy, 30. Orem, Utah: Millennial Press, 2007.

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