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Home > Close-Ups > Mormons and Polygamy

 

 

Mormons and Polygamy

or, "Utah:  Where Monogamy is Monotony"

 

 

A Gentile's Brief History of the Mormons

Who are the Mormons and what's the story with polygamy?  I've done a lot of traveling in Utah over the past 20 years and I've also worked professionally with many Mormons in Salt Lake City.  Although I'm not Mormon -- and have no plans of becoming one -- I've always been fascinated by the Mormons, and I'll pass on what I've learned, along with some opinions and a bit of humor.

 

First of all, about 70% of Utahns belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, (or just "LDS"), also known as the Mormon Church.  The religion was formed in 1827 by Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York, who claimed that he received a visit from the angel Moroni, the son of the prophet Mormon.  According to Smith, Moroni gave him golden plates inscribed with symbols which Smith translated into the Book of Mormon.  

 

Smith and his followers, known as Mormons, were persecuted for many of their beliefs, especially that of polygamy.  Because of the persecution, they continually moved westward across America seeking a place of refuge (or "Zion") and the freedom to worship.  Smith claimed that Missouri was Zion and moved there, but moved his group back to Illinois after being persecuted there.  In 1844, Smith was shot to death by an angry mob while being held in a jail cell in Carthage, Illinois. 

 

After Joseph Smith's death, the Mormons split into two groups, one of which rejected polygamy and returned to Missouri.  The larger group followed the new leader, Brigham Young, and headed west across the Great Plains in 1847, many of them pulling their belongings in hand carts since they were too poor to own oxen or horses.  As they moved west, they paralleled the recently-established Oregon Trail, though staying on the opposite bank of the Platte River, until they reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement.  Upon gazing down into the valley, Young is supposed to have said, "This is the place."  Or maybe it was, "Good enough."

 

The Mormons settled primarily in an area which has become the present state of Utah, though they also settled in the neighboring areas of Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada.  Many gentiles (non-Mormons) have moved to Utah during the past few decades, reducing the percentage of Mormons in the urban Salt Lake area to about 50%.  The percentage of Mormons in rural areas of Utah is much higher, above 90%.

 

Early Mormons were quite utilitarian, reflected today in the north-south grid pattern layout of many Mormon cities and towns across Utah, with streets often having practical but less-than-charming names like "100 South," "200 South," etc.   Mormons usually laid out their towns with very wide, tree-lined streets, streets wide enough to turn a horse and cart around.  Today, if you drive around western Colorado or southern Idaho and see wide, tree-lined streets, it indicates that the town was probably originally settled by Mormons.

 

Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that divine revelation did not end with the disciples but continues to this day.  Mormons are also typically conservative and tend to be very family-oriented.  They usually marry young and often have large families.  Whenever I go into grocery stores in Utah, I often see young women in their 20's (and usually blonde, for some reason) with four or five children tagging along, and Mormon families of eight or nine kids are not unusual.  As an aside, and I know this sounds like a stereotype, but I've always been struck at how physically attractive Mormons are.  Not to sound sexist, but I think the prettiest women in the country live in Utah. 

 

Hey, maybe I will become a Mormon some day!

 

1-5036_Hill_Cumorah_Sign.jpg (38786 bytes)    1-5054_Hill_Cumorah.jpg (36956 bytes)    1-5048_Moroni_Statue.jpg (26351 bytes)

Above left:  Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, New York.  According to the Mormons, this is were Mormon founder Joseph Smith received the Golden Tablets from the Angel Moroni, son of the Prophet Mormon, which Smith later translated into the Book of Mormon.  When Smith started practicing polygamy, though, locals gave him the boot.

Above center:  This is supposedly where Joseph Smith received the Golden Tablets.  Judging from the size, the family here is no doubt Mormon.

Above right:  The angel Moroni on Hill Cumorah.

 

The Polygamy Issue

Does polygamy still exist in Utah?  You bet it does.  Utah was admitted to the Union in 1896 but only under the condition that the Mormon Church ban polygamy, which they agreed to do.  The Mormon Church remains opposed to polygamy to this day and immediately excommunicates any member who is discovered to be practicing polygamy.  There are several ultra-orthodox offshoots of the Mormon Church though, especially in rural parts of Utah, which quietly practice polygamy today basically under a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.  Most polygamists just want to be left alone and don't want notoriety.

 

Perhaps the most famous polygamist communities are Colorado City, Arizona, just south of the Utah border, and its neighboring town of Hildale, Utah.  These two towns, formerly known as Short Creek, were raided by the National Guard in the 1950s in what is still referred to by local residents as "The Raid," and many men here were sent to prison.  Images of families being torn apart resulted in a public relations disaster for the state of Utah and no major arrests of "poligs" have occurred since then.  There was a made-for-TV movie about this incident many years ago called, "Child Bride of Short Creek" which starred a very young Helen Hunt, long before she was Mad About You.  By the way, after the men were released from prison several years later, they returned to Colorado City and quietly resumed their ultra-orthodox beliefs, including the practice of polygamy.  I once asked a local National Park ranger if there were still polygamists there and she avoided a direct response to my question by saying, "If you drive through Colorado City, you'll see a lot of big houses."  

 

If you drive through Colorado City, as I did a few years ago, you'll also see a lot of women wearing long dresses and bonnets and men with long-sleeved shirts and hats, dressed just as their ancestors did a hundred years ago.  I've tried to photograph them, but they're quite suspicious of outsiders, especially I guess, outsiders like me toting big cameras.  Yes, polygamy is alive and well in Utah, and estimates are that between 30,000 and 75,000 people live in polygamist families in Utah today (mostly in rural areas), representing about 1 to 2 percent of the state's population.  From what I've seen, I don't dispute those estimates.  

 

Regardless of my personal opposition to polygamy, being a closet genealogist I do appreciate the work the Mormon Church has done to document ancestral records.  Right or wrong, the Mormon Church believes that souls can be saved even after they die.  Therefore, Mormons have, for over 100 years, kept meticulous genealogical records of both Mormons and gentiles alike.  When most Mormons reach their early 20s and before they're married (and start cranking out those huge families), they go on a "mission" in which they move to a distant state or country.  During the next several months while they live in that community, they teach, help the locals... and proselytize, trying to convert local residents to Mormonism.  They also record family tree information and send it back to the genealogy vaults in Salt Lake City, presumably to help save the souls of those departed.  

 

A few years ago, the Mormon Church put much of this information on a website called www.FamilySearch.org.  This website is a treasure trove of genealogical data and, although my family is not Mormon, I was able to trace my family tree back 26 continuous generations using this website, to about the year 1250 in England.  Whether the Mormons are right or wrong about saving souls, I do appreciate their genealogy work.  The only thing I don't like about their website is that darn button that pops up every minute asking, "Do you want to convert now?"  :-)

 

Although I don't agree with the Mormon's sometimes-intolerant views, conservative values, and occasionally-strange behaviors, I do respect their strong work ethic, independence, communal attitude, and belief in a strong family.  I don't like to make generalizations, but while some Mormons can be a bit shy, clannish or even suspicious towards outsiders, they can also be quite helpful in times of need, as I've discovered on several occasions.  Although I disagree with some of their beliefs, Mormons fascinate me and, to a large degree, they have my respect.

 

1206_-_Colorado_City_AZ.jpg (33596 bytes)    1-1853_Mormon_Tea.jpg (83826 bytes)

Above left:  The National Guard raided Colorado City, Arizona in the 1950s, and many men were sent to prison for polygamy.  The men returned and today Colorado City has one of the most ultra-orthodox branches of the Mormon Church.  They're not real friendly to outsiders, either.  Note the "big houses" on the right.  I shot this in 1995.

Above right:  Speaking of Mormons, Mormon Tea is a bush that's common throughout southern Utah.  Early Mormon pioneers supposedly brewed the thin, stalk-like leaves of this plant to make a refreshing drink.  I brewed it a few years ago and it tasted like... hot water.