Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mormons Part Two: The 27th Mrs. Young

This is four part series. Scroll down or click the link to the right for the previous entry.

In 1873, Anna Leonowens, of Anna and the King fame, wrote a now forgotten second book, The Romance of the Harem. The work focused on the role of polygamy in the Siamese court where she had been governess to King Mongut’s sixty odd children. She documented experiences from among the 9,000 wives and concubines of the king and pulled no punches when sharing her opinions on the practice.

“Polygamy—or properly speaking, concubinage—and slavery are the curses of the country,” wrote Mrs. Leonowens, “The number of concubines is limited only by the means of the man. As king is source of all wealth and influence, dependent kings, princes and nobles, and all who seek the royal favor, vie with each other in bringing their most beautiful and accomplished daughters to the royal harem... in Siam, woman is the slave of man.”

The book was a sensation in America. It was a success not because of its exotic content, however, but because of a familiar chord it struck with the American reading public. Polygamy was the source of national scandal in 1873, and because of this Mrs. Leonowens’ book was perfectly timed. Her work was confirmation that polygamy linked our country with the least progressive places on earth, the harems of Arabia and the calcifying empires of the Far East. Romance of the Harem fueled ire and humiliation at a peculiar institution practiced openly within US territory.

Americans in the second half 19th century did not equivocate on the issue of polygamy. Polygamy was considered akin to another peculiar institution, recently abolished African slavery. In the penultimate election before the Civil War, Republican John Fremont’s presidential platform of 1856 directly tied the two institutions with the denunciation of, “those twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.”

Many of the same reformers who led the fight against slavery took up cause against polygamy. Famed author Harriet Beecher Stowe compared the anti-polygamy crusade to the abolitionist movement, “we must loose the bonds of a cruel slavery whose chains have cut into the very hearts of thousands of our sisters,” she wrote, “a slavery which debases and degrades womanhood, and the family.”

President Lincoln signed the first federal anti-polygamy laws in 1861, and for three decades each successive administration stepped up the pressure for the Mormons to conform to the law. Not until the government threatened the seizure of all church held land did the Mormons drop their practice of plural marriage. This capitulation paved the way for Utah’s statehood in 1890.

1873 saw a national flowering of anti-polygamist sentiment, and the person most responsible for the information on the practice was Ann Eliza Young, the 27th wife of Brigham Young, the second prophet of the LDS and leader of the Mormon exodus to Utah. That was the year Mrs. Young brought her personal reflections and the grievances of Utah’s plural wives to a national audience.

Under threat of violence and ensuing excommunication from the LDS, Eliza escaped from Utah and abandoned her marriage to the Prophet.

Eliza then toured the country lecturing on the evils of polygamy in the Utah territory. Audiences were captivated by her tale. It was a tale of neglect, of a parsimonious husband who, as controller of LDS tithing revenue, was considered to be one of the wealthiest men in the Western United States. Most touching were the pains that she claimed infected the hearts of all plural lives, a desperate competition for the divided attention of a distant husband (who in Young’s case barely knew the names of his hundred odd sons and daughters). She spoke of the shock her mother faced when, just after the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Brigham Young first revealed to her and her husband the secret of celestial marriage. In a pattern that must have been repeated in many early Mormon households, the shock gave way to sadness, then bitterness as she was compelled to share her husband with women half her age. Eliza’s escape from Utah was itself a gripping tale, for when she left her husband the Prophet she became the enemy of every Saint in the Utah territory and beyond.

“Imagine, if you can, my feelings,” Eliza later wrote, “on being alone with my little child, in a strange place, under such peculiar circumstances. I had abandoned my religion, my father, mother, home, and friends—deliberately turned away from them all, knowing that the step I was taking could never be retraced. My heart cried out for my mother, who I knew would be more sorely stricken with my action than anyone else in the world. I would have spared her if I could, but I was powerless to act in any other manner.”

She gave her lectures to packed halls in Denver, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, and hundreds of smaller towns across the country. On April 14th 1874 she addressed a lecture to a packed house in Washington D.C. that included many members of Congress as well as Julia and President Ulysses S. Grant. Her speech is credited with the passage of the Poland Law which tightened the prohibitions on polygamy in the US and its territories.

Eliza Young was a second generation Saint. She did not chose the new religion of Joseph Smith, rather she was born into a Mormon household. As a young child she remembers the wagon train she and her family rode to Utah. Those earliest memories also include her “second” mother, and the heartache her real mother endured each time her father took another of his five wives.

Eliza’s parents had been among the earliest converts to this new religion. They both fell under the spell of Joseph Smith, a man who claimed to be the living Prophet of Jesus Christ. It was an audacious claim, one that Eliza’s father initially considered with a great deal of skepticism. Yet Smith converted him. This prophet was imbued with a rare charisma even in an era rampant with revival.

The decision to practice polygamy was not one the family took lightly. From the earliest days of the Church Joseph Smith had been taking multiple wives, but he did so in secrecy. Only slowly did he expanded the practice among church leaders. Polygamy was never a universal practice among Mormons, but in time affluent Mormons were encouraged to practice "the principle". Ann Eliza recounts that after Smith’s death, when Brigham Young was consolidating his control of the church, he used Smith’s martyrdom to make polygamy explicit Church doctrine. Young visited Ann Eliza’s father and demanded he acknowledge the “revelation of plural marriage” by taking a second wife. Chauncey refused to comply without consulting his wife. He knew that the Mormon church was more important to his wife than to himself as he had been prepared to leave it before when twice defrauded of money by Joseph Smith. So he left the decision to her, that they either leave the church or take another woman into their home. She was horrified that religion she had devoted her life to was now asking her to poison her happy home. But the new prophet made clear that the only alternative was apostasy. So the first Mrs. Webb reluctantly decided that Chauncey should marry their nineteen-year old house girl.

It was not until after their migration west into the Salt Lake Basin that the Church of Latter-Day Saints officially announced their sacrament of plural marriage to the world. It had become an unavoidable admission. There were no hotels in the Utah territory circa 1850, and the forty-niners who had stayed in Mormon households on their way to the California gold fields saw enough to circulate rumors of the concubines of Utah. The California press circulated these stories to the world. Still, the rest of the US was aghast in 1852 when Brigham Young publicly revealed the Mormon practice of celestial marriage. For four decades the issue kept the Mormons as a people set apart from the rest of the country. And there were very few links into this world, especially not into the family of the spiritual leader of Mormonism. Thus the sensation when Ann Eliza began her lecture circuit. From 1873 she would lecture 8 months out of the year for over a decade, one of the top box office hits of her generation.

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