Economics of Polygamy, Divorce, and Happiness (Daynes part 4)

Ok, I’ve talked about this book quite a bit–I’ll probably take a break for a while after this post.  (If you’re tired of the topic, perhaps you’d like to see what I wrote over at Mormon Matters: Utah Happiest State in Nation.)

One of the stereotypes of polygamy has been that Mormon men were just horndogs and married women for sex.  Another stereotype has been that women joined into polygamy under duress–that it was preached for their salvation.  While this is partially true, it leaves out significant parts of the story.  Surprisingly, Utah had THE most liberal divorce laws in the nation during the Brigham Young era.  In fact, “gentiles” seeking divorce utilized Utah’s liberal divorce laws, forcing the Utah legislature to close a loophole allowing non-residents to obtain divorce in Utah.

I was pleased to learn that if a woman wanted to end a polygamist marriage, she was at liberty to do so.  However, divorce for males was much more difficult.  Women were much more at liberty to start or end a polygamist marriage than men were.  From page 154, (please note that MH below is not me, and is part of the quote–not my addition….)  🙂

In practice, a woman who insisted on a divorce could obtain one.  For example, one bishop, in recommending that the president of the church grant a divorce, wrote, “We consider in our opinion that it would not be wise to compel [MH] although her grounds are not just, to continue to be the wife of [CH] inasmuch as she claims that she does not now nor never did have any affections for him.”75 This was also Brigham Young’s position.  His clerk stated, “As a rule, the Prest. never refuses to grant a bill on the application of the wife, and NEVER when she INSISTS on it.”  Although Brigham Young preached against divorce, he was fairly liberal in granting women permission to divorce.76

Brigham Young was so tired of hearing complaints about plural marriage that on September 21, 1856, he announced that in two weeks he would set at liberty all women who did not wish to stay with their husbands.  This was not a new policy to liberally grant divorces, and the conditions of divorce he announced two weeks later were similar to those both before and after that time:  women would have to “give good & sufficient reasons & then marry men that will not have but one wife.”77 The purpose of his September 21 sermon was not to announce divorce policy but to offer polygamous wives stark alternatives.  The could either be released from their polygamous marriages or they should quit whining.  “I want to … do something to get rid of the whiners,” he said.  Every woman who stayed with her husband should “comply with the law of God, and that too without any murmuring and whining.  You must fulfill the law of God in every respect, and round up your shoulders to walk up to the mark without any grunting.”78 This sermon was preached during the reformation, just as the harsh phase was beginning.  This was also the time when many more women entered plural marriage than in any other period.  In typical hyperbolic fashion, Brigham Young was telling women they were not fulfilling the laws of God when they entered plural marriage and then whined about it.

[page 155] Because men were permitted to take other wives, he preferred not to grant men divorces.  On one occasion when a polygamist applied for a divorce, Young said that a man married a wife for better or worse and had no right to misuse her; he knew of no law to give a man in plural marriage a divorce.  Apostle George A. Smith replied, “Pres. Young, it is with you as it was with Moses.  There is no law authorizing divorce, but through the hardness of hearts of the people you are obliged to permit it.”  A clearer statement of the church’s accommodation to the realities of family life could hardly be found.  The polygamist was granted the divorce.79 It thus appears that men as well as women who insisted on divorces received permission for them.

Many women entered into polygamy for economic reasons.  Daynes states that it was a way to redistribute wealth, and take care of the poor.  In fact, it seems some polygamist marriages were for purely economic reasons.  These were called “nominal marriages”, and I talked about them in my previous post.

Wealthier men cold more easily provide for additional wives and would certainly be more attractive to economically disadvantaged women, and those of higher church rank were considered more likely to attain exaltation in the next life and thus provide women with the eternal spouses they needed for their own exaltation.

The church had often been accused that missionary work was a tool for recruitment of plural wives.  Daynes concludes that such charges are unfounded.  She indicates that polygamy was used to the economic advantage of poor women.  From page 127,

The church’s extensive missionary program was often accused of being a recruitment program for plural wives. This was not so: almost as many single men as single women emigrated to Utah.33 Nor did most single female converts become plural wives.

It does appear, however, that the church, with its strong advocacy of separate gender roles, gave different types of financial assistance to women than to men.  For poor, immigrant men, it provided jobs on public projects, including work on temples and the Tabernacle.34 It helped single women by providing them ample opportunities to marry, including as plural wives.

One plural wife indicated that this was what she thought the church intended:  “Utah in those days was full of girls and women who had come from the European countries and from Eastern states [as converts].  Brigham Young used to say to the men: ‘Marry these girls and give them a home and provide for and protect them.  Let them be wives and mothers.’  So all men who could looked upon it as a duty.”35 John Taylor, president of the church, specifically preached that widows should be taken care of through marriage:  “[I]f a man has a brother dead who has left a widow, let the woman in that kind of a position be just as well off as a woman who has a husband…. If a woman is left by her husband, let her have somebody to take care of her; if not her husband’s brother, then the next of kin….  We ought to look after the welfare and interest of all.”36

When it was a religious responsibility to take care of the widows and the fatherless and when it was to such women’s economic advantage to marry, the high percentage of plural wives belonging to those categories is not surprising.  Mormon women undoubtedly believed in the principle of plural marriage, but women who needed economic help disproportionately practiced it.

Daynes talks quite a bit about divorce rates.  Polygamous divorce rates are a little different than monogamous rates, but I found talk of divorce interesting, especially this tidbit from page 193,

[Durkhiem’s] statistics show that in societies where divorces are common, wives commit suicide less frequently than elsewhere.;29&;  Aside from his erroneous assumptions about women that would not be countenanced today, his discussion shows that women’s circumstances are improved when divorce provides a release from unhappy marriages.

(My post over at Mormon Matters can be related to this as well: Utah is happy.)  Anyway, back to the topic.  Comparing monogamic and polygamic divorces is not an apples to apples comparison, though Daynes does a good job of coming up with some interesting statistics.  From page 160,

Lenient divorce laws did mean that the number of divorces was greater in Utah than in most states in the nineteenth century, although western states in general tended to have higher rates of divorce than did eastern ones.  Nevertheless, the number of divorces even from plural marriages was moderate, especially by today’s standards.

[page 161]  From 1867 to 1886, the church granted 759 divorces, while the civil courts granted about 2,420 to Utah residents.3  Using only the civil divorces, Wright found that in 1870 Utah’s ratio of one divorce for every 185 married couples gave it the second highest divorce rate in the nation.  Only Wyoming had a higher rate, one divorce for every 123 couples.  If the average number of ecclesiastical divorces per year is added, however, Utah had the most divorces per estimated married couples of any state or territory.  By 1880, Utah’s ratio had risen to one divorce for every 219 married couples, and nine states or territories had ratios lower than Utah’s.  With the addition of half the average number of ecclesiastical divorces–assuming that by 1880 half would have sought divorces in both jurisdictions–seven states and territories still had higher rates than did Utah.  Nevertheless, Utah had more than twice as many divorces per estimated married couples as the national average.4

All of these calculations assume, however, that Utah had the same number of married couples relative to its population than other states had.5  Given the presence of polygamy, the high proportion of married women, and Utah’s low age of marriage, Wright’s estimates of the number of married couples are probably low.  If Utah had more married couples than Wright estimated, there would have been fewer divorces in relation to the number of couples than his figures indicated.  Still, it appears that Mormons valued happy marriages over long-lived ones and granted divorces accordingly.

[page 162]  Considering the problems with the various measures of divorce rates, Phillip Kunz calculated the percentage of Mormon divorces for the number of known marriages.  Using family group records for those who were married between 1844 and 1890, he found that 9.0 percent of polygamists were divorced, while less than 3.0 percent of their wives were.  This was still considerably higher than the 0.9 percent of monogamists in Utah during the same period whose family group records indicated that a divorce had taken place.  He conceded, however, that the relatives who submitted the family group records might not be aware of or list all divorces.8

Daynes came up with a better method for ascertaining divorce statistics, and discusses her method on page 162.  Her conclusions on page 163 show,

Excluding eternity-only marriages and nominal plural marriages, there were 83 divorces among the 465 plural marriages in the Manti plural marriage data set.  That is, 17.8 percent of these plural marriages ended in divorce.  The percentage remains about the same when individual women rather than the number of marriages are the basis for calculation:  77 (or 18.2 percent) of the 423 women were divorced.10

When a distinction is made between the first and subsequent wives in a plural marriage, these divorces are not distributed equally.  Only 15.7 percent of the divorces were obtained by women who were the first wives in plural marriages.  In all, 8.0 percent of the 163 first wives were granted a divorce.  These percentages are considerably smaller than those for plural wives.  Not only did plural wives obtain most of the divorces, but also one-fourth (24.6 percent) of plural wives divorced.  Among men, the percentage is higher still, although of course, a man increased his chances for a divorce with each additional wife.  Of the 151 polygamous men in the Manti subset, 35.1 percent–slightly over one-third–were divorced one or more times.11  Nevertheless, compared with today’s rate of just under half of all marriages ending in divorce, those rates for polygamous marriages are low.12

Even Brigham Young was divorced.  From page 165,

His plural wife Mary Ann Clark Powers, still in Iowa in 1851, wrote him in Utah asking to be released from him because of the “bitter cup” she had drunk during her stay at Winter Quarters.26

Overall, I have really enjoyed Daynes book, More Wives than One.  It has been fascinating to learn some of these facts.  While I still have problems with polygamy, I think this book set my mind at ease with some of the practices in the Utah period.  I really liked the fact that women were free to leave an unhappy marriage, and seemed to have some autonomy in choosing their mate.  I liked the fact that the poor and widows were taken care of.  Daynes discusses some of the marriage proposals by women to men, and I found those stories fascinating.  Comments?


15 comments on “Economics of Polygamy, Divorce, and Happiness (Daynes part 4)

  1. But these are leaders saying women were free to divorce, etc. How do we really know if they followed through on these matters? And also, BY may have said “you’re free to leave your marriage if you can’t stop complaining” but what kind of social stigma would that leave on the woman? It seems more like a backhanded compliment…sure you can leave, if you can’t stop whining and complaining and buck up and live the law of the Lord as you promised you would. Thats not really supportive. :/ I wonder how many women truly went through with a divorce after he made this announcement?

    Also, from the many personal stories of women in polygamist marriages, it wasn’t that easy, even if the leaders of the church, “legally” could dissolve the marriage. They would often refuse or try to convince the woman otherwise with delay tactics and promises, etc. And if she finally did get out of the marriage, she was shunned by members of the church, and from the polygamist communities.

    This just sounds like someone trying to put a silver lining on a very complicated, often negative, aspect of the church. Lets face it, polygamy for all intents and purposes was an epic failure.

  2. anon, you make some good points, but let me address some of your questions/issues.

    But these are leaders saying women were free to divorce, etc. How do we really know if they followed through on these matters?

    Kathryn Daynes says that the largest group of women to divorce were those who entered polygamy during the Mormon Reformation of the 1850’s (after BY’s quote). Additionally, David Bigler (who wrote the Forgotten Kingdom), mentioned this same Brigham Young quote, and said many women took Brigham Young up on the offer to divorce.

    As for social stigma, Daynes seems to indicate that there was much less of a stigma in today’s society. She specifically mentions women that had children out of wedlock were not ostracized. I’m positive that divorce and unwed mothers were not encouraged, but with the marriage culture then, it seems that Mormons did really want to look after each other, and these women found other husbands. I didn’t quote the marriage statistics, but it should come as no surprise that women married at a higher rater at all ages than any other American group of women. It appears that these divorced women found compatible partners to marry.

    I agree that polygamy wasn’t easy, and Daynes makes it clear that the leadership did not encourage divorce. She said that the leaders counseled parties against divorce, but if it really was a case where the parties couldn’t get along, Daynes says that the leaders felt it was better to be happily divorced than unhappily married.

    I don’t know if you read my perspective on polygamy–the short answer is I don’t think it was ever inspired, and frankly, I don’t think Daynes liked it either. But I felt she did illustrate strengths and weaknesses of the system.

  3. To me plural marriages are just like monogamous marriages in the sense that some were good and happy and some were bad and sour. People are people.

  4. Yes, but wasn’t Brigham Young supposed to be the perfect husband? He was a prophet after all… Yet even he granted multiple divorces from his own wives.

  5. I have struggled with the idea of polygamy until one day it hit me as to why there was/will be polygamy. It may not be right, but it makes sense to me and made me feel at least a little better.

    My idea (and please feel free to tell me what you think):

    In the pre-existence, when there was the war in Heaven and 1/3 of the Spirits were band from this life… were mostly men. Because we were already given our gender assignment beforehand, we may have already had the core distinctions in the pre-existence. Therefore, the 1/3 that left were mostly men already had an inclination towards the “natural man” and let that control their decision to follow Satan’s plan.

    Because the law was already in place, it was already pre-determined that a woman could not enter the Celestial Kingdom without a man and vice-versa. And because of the 2/3 that were left to be born, mostly were women. Because of the nature of man to give into the “natural man”, where as a woman (also has the tendency, but I personally feel is less) is more of a nurturer, there are even less worthy men for women to be sealed to.

    Because Heavenly Father is a loving Father that does not want to see some of His daughters without the promise of the Celestial Kingdom, He provided them a way to be sealed to a worthy male… polygamy. And, it also provided a way to weed out those women that truly could not live that commandment.

    I used to think why would Heavenly Father punish his female daughters so… until I thought of this reasoning. It was never to hurt. It was others who did not follow Christ’s plan that created this situation… and it was out of love that Heavenly Father created polygamy.

    I have a great-great-great grandmother who was the first wife. She entered into polygamy with a conviction of the truth of polygamy. Yet, she was left alone often with no food for her children while her husband was in exile. And the last 10 years of her life were spent alone because her husband decided to live with the 2nd wife permanently after my great-great-great grandmother stood up to him when he opposed a marriage for his daughter from the other wife. She pleaded with him to allow the marriage… and it wasn’t even her own daughter! She was/is selfless, loving, giving, and true to her covenant with Heavenly Father. Polygamy was a hardship and a trial for her. I am sure it was for many. I am proud of her for enduring all those lonely, hard trials… some of which were inflicted upon her by a husband that did not like her standing up to him (the only time in her life she ever did). Her daughter wrote a book on her life and even though she wrote about the accomplishments of her mother, she also spoke of the pain and heartbreak… and how she bore it with grace and dignity… and absolute faith in Heavenly Father. She always will be, without a doubt, my hero.

    I enjoyed your comments and information you provided. I hope my theory (as truthful or untruthful as it was) helps with your idea on polygamy… it gives me comfort as to the “why”. Although… the idea of polygamy in general still gives me no comfort whatsoever.


  6. Cassie:

    I always have respect for people who are self-sacrificing for their beliefs, even when I don’t share those beliefs. Of course, when I don’t believe, I am saddened by what seems as unnecessary self-sacrifice.

    My religious upbringing in the CofChrist branch of the Restoration, and my training as a physicist, leads me to view pre-existence, the afterlife, and the relationship between the spirit and the physical body differently. I think the fall as presented in Restoration scriptures is trying to describe a real event for which we have no appropriate language, because we fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between the physical and spiritual realms.

    Interestingly, I don’t think either men or women can avoid having multiple spouses in heaven, or for that matter multiple believing and unbelieving children, or multiple sealed and unsealed, or successful or broken marriages on earth. There, by the grace of God, we all DO go. It’s simply a property of having those multiple “earths” seen in the Book of Moses interpreted in light of what we now know about the probable existence of parallel universes.

    Yet one family and one spouse per earth can still be the norm.

  7. Cassie,

    I have great regard for those who think polygamy was a celestial commandment, and I respect their great sacrifice in living the law.

    I’m not sure I agree with some of your assumptions, such as “1/3 of the Spirits were band from this life were mostly men.” I don’t think women are more spiritual than men, and I don’t think men are more spiritual than women. Such ideas seem sexist to me, and remind me of the idea that blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood because they were fence-sitters in the pre-existence. I reject such assumptions. I believe that men [and women] will be punished for their own sins, and not for the transgressions of the 1/3.

    While women do outnumber men currently, your statement that “the 2/3 that were left to be born, mostly were women” doesn’t seem to be supported by statistics. I believe that women outnumber men 52-48%. This 2/3 would have to be skewed much more to support the idea that 2/3 of those born on earth are women.

    Frankly, I think polygamy is sexist. If it is to be fair, women should be allowed to be sealed to multiple men, especially if the first temple marriage ends in the death of a husband. It just doesn’t seem fair to me that men can be sealed to multiple women, but not the other way around. I like the sealing concept, but I do believe that some of the implementations today are inherently sexist in favor of men over women, and I think such inequities need to be solved if it is ever to be brought back.

    To me, the beauty of the sealing ordinance is that “neither is the man without the woman, nor the woman without the man in the Lord.” We need each other to obtain Celestial glory–and that isn’t sexist at all. Men can’t get there by themselves, and neither can women.

  8. @Mormon Heretic

    I most definitely apologize. I am so sorry that I have angered you. It was just a thought that brought me peace (somewhat). I never meant to be sexist. I never meant to be rude. I just want to tell you how sorry I am. It was just a thought that occurred to me one day… It was a huge assumption on my part… but I have no real conviction of it. It was just to make myself feel better, and I thought that it might make other people feel better as well, so that is why I shared it. I can see that it was a huge mistake on my part… and even though I truly thought the intentions were good, I have hurt and angered people on this board. I must have been dumb enough to think that was not going to happen.

    I am a dumb girl with dumb thoughts. I thought that maybe there were others like me out there that have a hard time with the “why” of polygamy, and for some stupid reason, I thought I was actually offering an idea that would help. I have told some of my friends this “theory” and they said it made sense to them, so I actually thought it might be a possibility. I have learned that just because some friends may agree, it doesn’t mean that to scholars like you and your readers would see any value in it. I am an uneducated, lowly person that has no right to come up with these wild ideas. I should just leave alone subjects like this to a you. I have appreciated your information and comments. I am just so sorry to have made you angry.

    Please forgive me. I was SO STUPID. I am sorry. I don’t know how else to convey to you how sorry I am.

    Thanks for replying. I guess I was just wondering if anyone out there felt like me. I was wrong and and I apologize profusely.

  9. Cassie, there is absolutely no need to apologize. I think you have illustrated ‘unintentional sexism’ that is rampant within the church. I believe most members don’t recognize racism or sexism because it is built into our culture. I wasn’t angry with you at all, I apologize if I gave that impression. I was merely trying to illustrate the errors of such a thought process.

    It is an interesting speculation and I encourage you to engage in such speculation, but I wanted you to know where it becomes problematic to me. I encourage you to continue to ponder on the scriptures because I think you will grow spiritually by doing so. As you do ponder, try to anticipate where problems could arise. It’s fun and safe to bat around such ideas here, and I want you to feel that this website is a safe place to do so. Once again, I never was angry with you, and I apologize for giving that impression.

  10. The same for me, Cassie. You’re welcome, and your ideas are not stupid in any way.

    Oh, and Cassie, you are a daughter of Heavenly Father. What kind of a degree can anyone get that makes a scholar better qualified to know her Father than that basic qualification?

  11. […] told Kathy Daines that I really enjoyed her book, More Wives than One.  Apparently she is working with Sarah Gordon on a new book that I am sure will be interesting.  […]

  12. re: economics of Polygamy, divorce, & happiness; 11/15/09.
    cites Daynes, part 4

    could you Please give me the source material? I’d like to see the footnotes.

    Q: have you heard that BY charged ($10) for each divorce? is this backed up by reliable information?

    Q: The statement is that Utah had very liberal divorce laws, ‘especially for women’….Is this a comment or from the original writing/essay-opinion?

    Thanks much for your time & efforts!

  13. Anders, I don’t have the book so I’ll have to check the footnotes. (I’ll probably move this comment to that post so it makes more sense.

    q1-I haven’t heard that Brigham charged for a divorce, so I don’t know if it is reliable or not.

    q2-Daines goes into quite a bit of detail about Utah’s divorce laws. I’d have to check the footnotes for more detail.

  14. […] eyes spiritual divorces were more binding than legal divorces.  Yet during the pioneer period, Utah was advertised as the easiest place to get a legal divorce, and many non-LDS sought divorces in Utah because it was so easy.  If it was so easy to get a […]

  15. […] eyes spiritual divorces were more binding than legal divorces.  Yet during the pioneer period, Utah was advertised as the easiest place to get a legal divorce, and many non-LDS sought divorces in Utah because it was so easy.  If it was so easy to get a […]

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