1850s LDS publication touts grandeur, threatens celibacy to promote polygamy
I have the privilege to own, hold and read the Saturday, April 9, 1853 edition of The Latter Day Saints’ Millennial Star, published in London. I procured this copy via Ebay. The issue was devoted to an enthusiastic, at times clever, defense of polygamy, which the LDS Church had recently admitted it espoused. It’s interesting, and even gratifying, to read such an audacious defense of a doctrine that was as unpopular then as it still is. Unabashedly, the pub proclaims that without polygamy, husbands and wives are doomed to celibate, servant-like jobs in the hereafter ministering to their polygamous peers with husbands hopscotching between kingdoms while distinct wives sit on thrones raising children who grow in intelligence.
It’s a fascinating piece of history. Can anyone imagine if today’s LDS pubs, which are vanilla-boring compared to the Millennial Star, spoke so boldly to “gentiles” on celestial glory? The lead article was “A familiar conversation between two cousins, on marriage,” featuring Nelly, wife to George, and Abby, wife to Mormon John. It’s very entertaining, and no doubt was persuasive to many working-class Brits of that era. At the beginning, Nelly is contemptuous of Abby’s plans to share her husband with other wives, remarking, “… I would just like to pick one or two women for him that I could select; I’ll warrant that my George would have to be content with his Nelly, ever after! …”
Obviously, this conversation/debate is geared toward Abby persuading Nelly to the virtues of polygamy. Abby suggests that Nelly consider and pray about it. She tells her cousin that neither of them have the right to their husbands if the marriage is not bound by the Lord. Because her husband John has been called by God to be a “Prince Regent,” Abby is willing to share him with other wives. She says, “… Now if God is appointing His sons on the earth to fill thrones and occupy many principalities, and my husband means to be as worthy to fill thrones as others, then I will be content to share with him one throne, and rejoice at the same time to see others share with him other thrones, while my capacity will not allow me to share any more than my own. …”
Later, Abby goes for Nelly’s debate jugular when she tells her cousin that in the matter of sexual companionship in the afterlife, it’s either eternal polygamy or eternal celibacy. “…But dear cousin, the great question is this — will we unite with the plurality Order of Ancient Patriarchs, or will we consent voluntarily to be doomed to eternal celibacy? This is the true division of the question. One or the other we must choose. We cannot be married to our husbands for eternity, without subscribing to the law that admits a plurality of wives. …”
The “conversation” is an excellent polemic. It gets to the major concerns that a “Nelly” and “George” might naturally feel when contemplating an afterlife. Will they be together? Does God have some plan of eternal progression? “Abby” also argues to “Nelly” that polygamy provides more intellectual and physically fit children, grandchildren and future offspring. “Abby” later answers “Nelly’s” concern that other wives would undermine her by saying that larger families, if under the order of Abraham, “…enjoy a greater amount of intelligence, and a greater share of love also, than you possibly could in that single, contracted order which you seem to desire … In the former order your children are all the lawful heirs of thrones and kingdoms, and in your favourite order they are only the heirs of servile inferiority.”
Later in the conversation, Abby tries to persuade Nelly that polygamy provides a more moral and righteous social order than the norm and that it makes men less prone to adulterous behavior. The conversation is continued to the next issue, which I’d love to get a copy of. However, they can be read online at many sources, including from here.
As history reveals, polygamy was not to Abby’s hope. It caused poverty and heartbreak for many Utah women and near ruin for the LDS Church, which has been excommunicating earthly polygamists for 100-plus years. But it conveys the fierce pride in “The Principle,” that motivated so many smart, talented women, such as Emmeline Wells and Eliza R. Snow, to live it. I recently read where the great apostle Parley P. Pratt envisioned an afterlife of limitless Gods rushing here and there, from worlds to worlds, constantly busy creating plans of salvation. From this 1853 relic, I can see where those beliefs have a genesis.
The rest of the issue has an entertaining mix of articles. Their is a segment on the history of the Prophet Joseph Smith, several mission reports, including Burma and Switzerland, a reprint of a New York Herald editorial on the spiritual decline of the U.S. This is accompanied by an editorial comment that blasts the U.S. and assigns the ills mentioned to that nation having “refused the principles of life, and rejected the doctrine of immediate revelation, when they were taught them by a living Prophet of the Lord. …” There is a strong last-days apocalyptic tone to the rebuke. It ends with, “Then let the nations beware, for the Almighty is not trifling with them.”
There is a poem, Palestine, by a J.L. Lyne, more tidbits from other newspapers, notices of recent church publications, financial reports, and a strong essay against adultery, which cleverly points to the Utah settlement as the moral example of the nation. As mentioned, it’s a fascinating bit of history, and I hope to find more publications of that era.
-- Doug Gibson
This column originally was published online as a StandardNet blog post.