Sunday, December 11, 2005

What Polygamy Tells Us About the Mormon Experience

One of the grand achievements of the rule of law is the separation of public and private spheres, which gives meaning to the concept of individual liberty. Polygamy established a political order where the powerful regulate the sexual behavior of particular individuals.

The ability of the Mormon alpha male to regulate people's sexual relations and to deploy his power in the pursuit of marriage, takes us straight back to the law of the jungle. Such arrangements inevitably increase levels of political violence.

In other words, polygamy is the most striking manifestation of Smith's claim to unlimited power. Attempts to organize power around claims of prophecy amounted to a civilizational disaster that cost many people dearly, not least Joseph Smith himself.

Talk about a tragedy.


Anonymous pjj said...

Hellmut, I think I agree with you, but I'd like more evidence-- what's your proof that polygamy wasn't actually God's will?

And, how about today? Are males regulated as much by the LDS church? Seems to me the males have more influence and power.

Blogger Hellmut said...

Good point, pjj. In my opinion, the consequences of polygamy were so detrimental that one cannot reasonably argue that it is a divine institution.

With respect to male influence, I am much more concerned about my daughter's than about my son's Mormon experience. Having acknowleged that males enjoy a certain degree of privilege over females, I would like to point out that most males are not allowed to live a fulfilled and creative life in the LDS Church even if they are in "leadership" positions.

Anonymous pjj said...

I don't personally believe that polygamy was God's will, but I think that you need to address that-- perhaps God really does want to reward his faithful with Alpha male status.

I'm female, and have been bothered for years by the very obvious ways that Mormon women are regulated, but only recently started to see that it's actually only a very few Mormon men who are actually treated as adults. All Mormon males are taught that they are favored and privileged because of their ability to hold the priesthood, but the reality is that only a few males will be called to higher callings, with all the status that entails. And then there's the way that the men are sorted into two quorums, and only allowed to advance into High Priests if they are allowed by the other Alpha males.

Anonymous TMD said...

Lots of claims about polygamy, few substantiated.

First, there's a problem with the intro itself: all of the polygamy itself took place within the private sphere, religion being a part of the private sphere rather than the public sphere or the sphere of the state. Any one could, and many did, leave Kirtland, Nauvoo, etc. There was no compulsion to membership. The church-state claims are in this sense unintelligible.

Second the relationship with political violence. I just don't see this, either inter-communally or intra-communally. I don't see any particular rise in conflicts with other states or guerrilla warfare, assasination, or 'terrorism' within polygamous communities, be it Utah polygamy or elsewhere, which is not more explicable in terms of the nexus between community economy, organizational types and culture (by which I mean pre-modern agricultural tribe, for example). I understand you may not have actual empirical evidence, but at least a causal logic?

Last, the 'claim to unlimited power' discussion is also rather weak, in that while JS did not tolerate over-all leadership challengers, the organization itself, particularly in the Nauvoo period, is strongly reflective of the decentralization of power and function into various quorums (70's, stakes, apostles, wards, etc etc) and organizations that he did not personally run. In regards to polygamy in this context, if the sole motive was to organize power and use marriage as a device for this, why wait so very long to make public the relevant doctrinal statement?

Blogger Hellmut said...


Classifying the LDS Church as a voluntary association assumes a secular perspective. People who believe that membership is a precondition for salvation do not have the choice to leave. I am interested in the perspective of believers.

Furthermore, one must also realize that people who wanted to leave Nauvoo would be subject to considerable material losses as no one would purchase property from "apostates." You might want to read William Law's interview.

Finally, Joseph Smith was the mayor of Nauvoo, the president of the LDS Church, and the commander of the militia. Joseph nominated and installed the members of the bodies that you are mentioning. He could also release them. That is hardly a check. To outsiders such accumulation of power was scary.

Finally, I don't share your assessment that violence did not increase. After all, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed.

Blogger Hellmut said...

One more thing, TMD, the post does not discuss motives for polygamy at all. For the purpose of this discussion, polygamy merely indicates the organization of power.

Anonymous TMD said...

Your comment indicates to me that your whole discussion of church and state is kind of non-sensical, in that there is a clear difference between being compelled by one's own beliefs and being compelled by the state's de jure monopoly on legitimate violence. While the chuch as a corporate body and as a group of allied individuals had some means of defining the community and acting to maintain it, it is not at all the same as using state-based violence, imprisonment, or even taxation to punish dissenters. There may indeed be some losses, but none of them were apt to be absolute.

Regarding JS's local position, true, he had more power than any other individual in the church or in Nauvoo. But, two considerations are in order:
first, in response to your point, its a simple fact derived from moral hazard principles that whenever you delegate you lose at least some degree of control, due to information assymetries if nothing else. So, delegating to these bodies may not have been a 'check', in the American constitutional sense, but the organizational structure also reflects a diminishment of power relative to other possible organizational structures. Second, from the perspective of the believers, checking by means of a counter-individual, who would have constituted an almost anti-prophet, probably would not have been desireable. Additionally, because the church was not a state, meaningful exit was possible, although perhaps not as easy walking out of a traditional church. Moreover, JS encouraged members to find testimonies of the principles themselves--'teach the people correct principles and let them govern themselves,' etc., which does provide a meaningful, decentralized check.

The fact that some outsiders where 'scared by the accumulation of power' is both latching onto the vivid and a canard in the context of 19th century American politics. Even accepting your version of JS's power accumulation, he had less power than the typical big city political boss, and probably about the same amount of power as one of the great cotton magnates of the south. Lots of people feared their accumulation of power, but were less able to challenge it because wider social and political structures made them far more resilient.

As to the point about violence, you have no causal logic, but only point out that two people were killed after years of practicing polygamy and leading an unpopular and feared, yet still profoundly vulnerable, group. Many, many people were killed on the frontier and in the south (which MO kind of counts as) in random violence and in mob violence, well into the 20th century. Honor cultures, rather than polygamous ones, are much more apt to generate political violence, I think. The LDS are not an 'honor community' as sociology and anthropology traditionally define them.

Last, be it intentional or not, you do seem to be implying a power motive when you say:

In other words, polygamy is the most striking manifestation of Smith's claim to unlimited power. Attempts to organize power around claims of prophecy amounted to a civilizational disaster that cost many people dearly, not least Joseph Smith himself.

Blogger Hellmut said...

tmd, you might want to reread the original post more carefully.

I do not claim that polygamous societies are more violent. The argument is that absolute power brings about more violence and that Smith's practice of polygamy demonstrates that he pursued and applied absolute power.

Clearly, Lord Acton's dictum that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, applies to Smith as well as to any other mortal. One could not rely on Smith's self-restraint or virtue to constrain him. Those who did, had to turn over their wives and daughters. In Orson Hyde's case, Smith send a subordinate abroad to woe the Hyde's wife.

With regard to your particular points, I agree with you that Smith's power was not legitimate. In fact, however, Joseph controlled organized power in Nauvoo exclusively. He was the mayor. Everyone with a vote on the council obeyed him. He controlled the police and had his own army. Conclusion: Joseph was the state in the same sense as Louis XIV.

Mormons leaving Nauvoo had much more in common with Huguenot refugees than with our contemporaries leaving a voluntary association under the protection of the First Ammendment. In Nauvoo, the barriers and penalties of exit were so high that freedom to leave resembled the freedom of political refugees.

These are minor points, however. The main argument is that Smith organized and exercised power in a dysfunctional way that inevitably gave rise to greater levels of violence.

Anonymous tmd said...

The comparison with Bourbon France is inapt. Nauvoo was not a state, but a place within a state: there was no one within France with comparable power against Louis, whereas the force of the individual states in the US, and the US federal government of the time (the relevant state) certainly had greater power. You misinterpret my use of the word legitimate, inasmuch as that was merely part of the formal definition of de l'etat used by international laywers and social scientists.

There were many places in the US at the time where individuals had that degree of power, as noted before. Context is appropriate in making these judgements.

As I said before, leaving Nauvoo was certainly more difficult than leaving your typcial American church where everyone is anonymous and may at most see each other, without knowing anyone, on Sunday for an hour. But the saints knew that; to suggest that they did not know what they were getting into is to infantilize them. You use the example of Orson Hyde: but how did he respond? Since he died an apostle in 1878, it would seem that his belief in the prophet qua prophet was stronger than any other relevant doubts. That he had the ability to leave for a year and then come back (1838-9) suggests that it was not as difficult as you suggest--despite the fact that his leaving was contentious.

In terms of organizing power, it seems that it was necessary to maintain a community which was highly vulnerable, for the sake of its members, who valued it as such. If one believes in the validity of prophecy, then a non-hierarchical organization is undesireable since it will either dull the sharpness of the prophetic message--or it will not actually be non-hierarchical, having only the forms of dispersed power but not the actual content, as you contend was true of teh Nauvoo council. The question, gets at your discussion of functionality: functional for whom? Functional for those who are of the community, or just those who disagree with it? If it had been the latter, any organization which makes it easier to destroy is, of course, the more functional. In the context of frontier America, an organization with the church's beliefs had to be internally resilient in order to survive the strongly hostile world around it. Remember, after all, that Joseph Smith died within a couple decades of the last state governments disestablishing their churches, and that religious compulsion was used as frequently by the enemies of the church, against it and others, as the church used.

As to violence, I propose that you look to the outsiders for the cause--this is, after all, the heyday of the no-nothing party, which was not opposed to attacking religous groups that it did not agree with, burning catholic churches, lynching catholic priests, etc.

Blogger Hellmut said...

It's always convenient to blame outsiders. The problem is that violence followed Smith whereever he went. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would have been hard pressed to live peacefully in the neighborhood of Smith's group. A man who amasses offices including military command, and deploys his power to interfere even in family relationships is a scary guy.

The bottom line is that the state of Illinois did not resort to violence until Smith interfered violently with free speech (to hide polygamy, by the way).

I don't know anyone in America who claimed prophecy, was the government's chief executive, controlled the legislature and the military. May be, you can enlighten me. It would certainly be reasonable to substitute prophecy with other manifestations of religious leadership. Even with this allowance, you won't find many who meet the bill. Mormonism wasn't an experiment that people noticed throughout Europe and America for nothing.

The comparison between Louis XIV and Joseph Smith refers to their absolute status within their domain. External balance of power is a different phenomenon. Unfortunately for him, Smith's unrivalled internal power tempted him to engage into behavior that brought the wrath of outsiders upon him. Unlike Louis, Joe did not have the resources to fend them off. That his hardly his virtue.

The difference between Smith and Louis XIV is that Smith was not sovereign. In light of Smith's behavior one has to wonder if he was always aware of that fact

Anonymous TMD said...

Odd that you use Mandela and Gandhi as examples of bringers of peace. After all, so long as they were controvercial (that is, before Mandela was sainted by the outside world via his imprisonment, and through the end of Gandhi's life), violence tended to follow them, too. Particularly in the case of Gandhi--who was assasinated and whose intransigence on the issue of partition likely increased the violence, and the millions killed, associated with partion in 1947--you seem to have identified another person who claimed something like prophecy (his knowledge of 'true religion which rendered hinduism unrecognizeable to many of its adherents) to amass power, who had unusual degrees of influence over the private lives of his close associates (like Nehru), who had unorthodox relationships with women, and who created a movement that increased the violence level of his neighborhood. Based on your lines of reasoning, he too organized and exercized power in dysfunctional and violent ways.

Moreover, what does it matter if no one else who claimed prophecy won elections (anyone who won comparable elections had comparable powers as you note)--they certainly ran. They just weren't successful.

By the way, your argument that the people of MO and IL at the time were very tolerant of difference, only fearing power, is too clever by half. There's lots of evidence that any 'different' community in those times and places would have suffered substantial perseution by the outsiders. After all, if was the good people of MO that made Kansas bloody...

While it may be that there is a tendency to blame outsiders, it's still the cases that its sometimes true. These neighbors happened to be strong supporters of slavery, of the no-nothing party, later of the Klan...they weren't exactly multi-culturalists whose patience was eventually worn thin by breeches of the first ammendment...if there'd been a catholic church in the area, they'd have burned it--particularly if there were many irish immigrants in it--if there were some uppity blacks around, they'd've lynched them. And god help you if you were a native american, trying to live on your land in peace.

Blogger Hellmut said...

tmd, this exchange reminds me of the mother who observes: "Everybody is out of step but my Jimmy."

The problem for your argument is that Smith had trouble anywhere he went, not only in Missouri and Illinois (where Mormons were initially welcomed, by the way) but also in Ohio and New York. Violence followed the Mormons even to the Rocky Mountains. Only the supremacy of the secular government resolved the issues of violence. Where the Mormon theocracy failed, the federal government could succeed because it is subject to checks and balances.

Gandhi was nothing like Smith.

He was the leader of the Indian independence movement, not a religious innovator. Gandhi did not regulate Nehru's private life, especially not Nehru's sex life.

India's democracy is an outlier by any measure. In the wake of decolonialization and in the presence of endemic poverty, tyranny is the norm. You might want to read the works of Nobel Price winner Amartya Sen. In light of India's extraordinary institutional achievements, Gandhi must have done something right.

I understand that religion is an emotional issue for many people. That is no excuse, however, for inventing meaning that is not in the text. You claim that I said that frontier society was "very tolerant of difference." In a previous post, you said that I was implying that power was a motive for polygamy. I don't know where you come up with these notions, tmd. My posts do not support either attribution.

Anonymous tmd said...

This is not in the least emotional from my perspective, rather, you seem unaware of the implications of what you say. Either the outsiders were not tolerant of difference, and were thereby not reasonally responsible for any violence, or they were tolerant, and it was the saints fault. It does not seem to me that you can have it both ways--that the outsiders were intolerant of difference but the violence was the saints fault. Earlier when you said that polygamy was an example of JS's drive for absolute power, and then said that he used it as a tool, I think it is not unreasonable to say that the author would describe this as indicative of a power motive behind polygamy. Maybe not intended, but, still, reasonable from this reader's perspective.

I'm more familiar with Sen's work on welfare economics and social choice theory than his recent works on indian history, but I'm quite familiar with Indian political history (via the works of, for instance, Stanley Wolpert and the Rudolphs), and also its unique place in democracy via David Collier's Paths Toward Democracy.
Regarding Gandhi, you do not seem be familiar with the degree to which he mixed his religious innovations with his politics. I suggest you read his actual works, and his speeches. Most of the things that have kept India a democracy seem to be the result of Nehru's work--inasmuch as Gandhi was opposed to most of the things that seem to have been important in India's socio-economic and political development, like partition, industrialization, technical education, the outsize role of the Nehru-Gandhi family, etc. (His very public opposition to partition almost certainly increased the violence of the partition by delaying preparations and increasing the animosity to the key players.) Moreover, Gandhi did play an unusually influential role in the personal lives of his inner circle, for instance, arbitrating marriages, like Indira's marriage to Farroj (sp?) Gandhi (not a direct relation to him). Also, violence did indeed follow him from South Africa back to India, to which he returned when he was about 40.

Anonymous TMD said...

By the way, I'm going away for the weekend, and must therefore end the discussion. It's been interesting to talk with you.

Blogger bob mccue said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger bob mccue said...


That was a thought provoking post. Since you know me, you won’t be surprised to find that my response is longer than your initial seed.

I agree with you that Mormon polygamy represents a striking exercise of power by Smith, but don’t find that surprising and think that in context the relatively small degree of his power in this regard is telling about his position in early Mormonism.

When we look at the record of sexual behavior within religious cults (and leave aside for the moment the question of the degree to which Mormonism is a cult), what do we find? In many cases cult leaders (almost always male) exercise the traditional alpha male sexual prerogative over their followers, male and female. The most recent reference to this wide spread practise I ran across was just last night while reading Lee Kirkpatrick’s excellent “Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion”. Much of this power is overtly exercised, with cult leaders doing things like simply calling for a woman to spend the night, and both she and her husband accepting this as a measure of good fortune and/or faith.

I therefore think it is fair to conclude based on the sociological and anthropological study of sexual relationships and power dynamics within religious groups that unless restrained, male cult leaders will tend to take sexual advantage of their position. How they do this is a broad measure of the degree of their power.

This leads me to question your reference to the law of the jungle. I think your analogy breaks down there. Smith did not exercise his power openly, as do the alpha male chimps or the kind of cult leader I just mentioned, for example. Smith used his sexual power covertly, and in many other ways exercised covert power within Mormonism. His “spiritual wives” were sworn to secrecy, as were his male associates who as they confronted him about what he was up to tended to be admitted into the game. Early Mormonism was quasi-democratic, and Smith controlled this process to a much greater degree than most Mormon appreciated through the use of “quorums” that were sworn to secrecy, were sworn to support Smith, operated without even being known to most Mormons, made decisions, and then used their influence bring the body of the church along with them. These small groups were much easier for Smith to control than the masses themselves. Indeed, they were set up for the purpose of allowing Smith maximum control within a perceived democratic process. That being said, Smith did not have anything like the power that Brigham Young later consolidated to himself in a classic political move during a time of relative chaos. Young’s sexual and political power was much more overt than was Smith’s.

The evidence in my view is consistent with Smith being caught with his pants down as a result of doing what he could – using his social position within Mormonism to persuade women to have sex with him – and then inventing a way (while perhaps feeling inspired in this regard) to keep the game going for as long as possible. This involved taking the position that God had commanded him to have sex with many women, to lie about it, and to have them lie about it. This is consistent with his conduct in many other ways. For Smith, the ends usually justified the means. He regularly excused what appeared to be immoral behavior on the basis that God had commanded for a higher purpose.

And you are likely aware that Smith’s wife Emma said that “secret things” were responsible for his and Hyrum’s murder.

The irony in all of this is that Smith’s inability to keep his pants up sent Mormonism (including my family – I have a number of polygamous ancestors) down the bizarre path it trod. Had the Federal Government in the US not forced Mormonism to abandon polygamy, what would it likely be today? More irony – Mormonism’s prophets fought this change tooth and nail and lied about it for over a decade, and then while adjusting to life without polygamy went uber-American and international, thus creating the remarkably powerful organization we see today.

Mormonism owes its current stature not to prophetic leadership, but rather to Government intervention.

God does indeed work in mysterious ways!



Blogger Hellmut said...

Hi Bob,

I agree with you that Smith's secrecy is not compatible with the law of the jungle. In light of that evidence, I must revise my assessment of his power. It was constrained and he knew about it.

On the other hand, from the vantage point of non-Mormons or Mormon dissidents such as William Law, polygamy must have appeared as an aggressive move, which reasonably should have inspired fear.

tmd, have a safe trip. I hope that you are not affected by the ice and snow storms on the east coast.

I did not discuss outsiders at all. In this context, I am not interested in lynch mobs and the like. Rather I am saying that Smith made choices that emphasized his threatening posture. The argument applies the logic of the security dilemma to the work of historical political economy (Douglass North, Weingast, etc.).


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