Behind every great man are two wives

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

On July 12, 1843, in Nauvoo, Ill., Mormon prophet Joseph Smith recorded a revelation from God (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132) which distinguished between marriage in this world, which ended with the death of a partner, and celestial marriage, which lasted forever. The revelation said that plural marriage was acceptable provided the woman was free and both the present and proposed wives gave their consent and various other issues.

The revelation also discussed Old Testament prophets Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon, who had plural wives, which was nothing new in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  From this revelation it followed that plural marriage was not only permitted, but desirable.  “In the Whirlpool” and “Post-Manifesto Polygamy” consider the practice of polygamy and how it played out in the lives of two men, father and son, who were very high in the Church’s hierarchy, and also in the lives of their wives. 

The preface, statement of editorial method,  and three introductory essays take up about half of “Into the Whirlpool.”  The preface is a brief history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an introduction to Woodruff himself, and an introduction to his letters.

Reid L. Nielson’s essay, “A Friendship Formed in Exile,”  tells the story of the Atkin family and their little village on the Virgin River south of St. George, Utah, where Woodruff , living under the name of Lewis Allen, beginning in 1879, sought refuge from the U. S. government’s attempts to apprehend him for his polygamy.  Atkin and others provided safe houses for various polygamists during the government’s drive to stamp out plural marriage.

Thomas G. Alexander’s essay, “The Odyssey of a Latter Day Prophet,” tells of the efforts by the U. S. government to eliminate the practice of plural marriage through passing anti-polygamy laws, particularly the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887; the appointment of law officers and judges to enforce these laws; and the appeal process through the courts, which finally ended with the Supreme Court declaring that polygamy was illegal.  It tells of the government’s attempts to take over the Church’s property and other assets, and the effort by Woodruff and the Church’s other top leaders to prevent its happening.  This all leads to Woodruff receiving a revelation from God in 1890, published as the “Manifesto,” which said that polygamy had been found by the Supreme Court to be unlawful, and that nobody should perform any marriages which were contrary to the law of the land. 

Jan Shipp’s essay, “The Principle Revoked” deals with Mormon reaction to the Manifesto.  A few individuals chose to ignore the Manifesto, while others saw it coming and were relieved,  yet others were surprised.  Shipp’s essay thoughtfully explores the Manifesto and the various reactions to it.

Wilford Woodruff’s letters cover the period during his time as a fugitive from the U.S. government because of his plural wives. He was forced to hide out wherever he could.  He stayed much of his time with the Atkin family, but the letters are written when he was tending to Church business, dealing with family business, or doing other necessary things.  These letters show him to be a dedicated Church official, but also a friendly person, who was concerned with the well being of his family and friends.  His fear of capture and imprisonment was very real. The federal government had imprisoned more than 1000 men, including the highest Church officials,.  A warrant was out for Woodruff, too. 

Toward the end of the period covered, the Church was able to convince the government that it no longer backed the doctrine of plural marriage and was no longer performing the practice.  As a result, the Government reduced its persecution of the Church and its members, and essentially adopted a live and let live policy for the 83 year-old man, and for others who were not flagrant about breaking the law

“Post-Manifesto Polygamy” concerns letters among Abraham Owen Woodruff (1872-1904), son of Wilford Woodruff, and Owen’s first wife, Helen May Winters (1873 -1904), and his second wife, Eliza Avery Clark (1882-1953?).  Most of them are between the husband and one of the wives, but a few are between the two wives themselves.  Owen and Avery had to use pseudonyms and code names for places where they were staying in order to avoid detection and capture. 

Per the 1843 revelation, Helen was required to give Owen consent to marry a second wife, and her early letters show her mixed feelings about the act.  In the end, Helen and Avery got along with each other. 

Avery was a college student, when she and Owen met.  After graduation, she moved to Colonia Juarez,  a Mormon colony in Mexico (not the same as Ciudad Juarez, which is across the Rio Grande from El Paso), where she and other plural wives could be open about their marriages without worrying about the authorities.  Letters between husband and wife deal with various daily activities, as well as designing and building a house for her.

The Church was very demanding of Owen’s time and sent him to various places, so that the couples did not actually see a lot of each other, hence the need for letter writing.  The letters ended abruptly in May 1904, when Helen got smallpox in Mexico City and died. Owen died of the disease less than two weeks later in El Paso, Texas.  Avery kept Helen’s children in Mexico for a short while,before they were taken in by Helen’s relatives in Utah

Marriage was changing its purpose throughout the time of Wilford’s and Owen’s letters, from a woman being a helpmeet, which was necessary on the frontier, to a woman being a companion.  With the former, having more than one wife made economic sense, whereas having more than one for the latter did not.

The trouble with reading about plural marriages is that we are often so fascinated with hope for lurid details of others’ erotic lives that we forget to see them as total human beings. 

Their letters show them as men and women that are trying to live their lives and their religion as best they could. Plural marriage was only a part of their story. 

Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident.

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