Barringer Gordon, Sarah 1955-

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PERSONAL: Born 1955, in Princeton, NJ; married; husband's name Daniel; children: Patrick, Sophia. Education: Vassar College, B.A., 1982; Yale University, J.D., M.A.R.; Princeton University, Ph.D. (history), 1995. Religion: "Episcopalian." Hobbies and other interests: Marathon running.

ADDRESSES: Home—Mount Airy, PA. Office—University of Pennsylvania Law School, 3400 Chestnut St., Room 107, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: University of Pennsylvania, professor of law; Vassar College, member of board of trustees.

MEMBER: Historical Society of Pennsylvania councilor, Library Company of Philadelphia board member, University of Pennsylvania chair of Sesquicentennial Committee.

AWARDS, HONORS: Pew Program in Religion and American History, Yale University; Laurence S. Rockefeller scholarship, Princeton University Center for Human Values; Fletcher Foundation fellow for the Huntington, all 1997-98, for work on legal history of religion, property, and marriage.


The Mormon Question: Polygamy and ConstitutionalConflict in Nineteenth-Century America, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 2002.

Wrote introduction for Women and the Unstable State in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Alison M. Parker and Stephanie Cole, Texas A & M Press (College Station, TX), 2000. Also publishes articles for academic journals, including Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, New York University Law Review and DePaul Law Review.

SIDELIGHTS: University of Pennsylvania law professor Sarah Barringer Gordon has published countless papers and articles about constitutional law, the relationship between church and state, and gender. Her first published treatise concerns how plural marriage has transformed the American legal system. Although many books have been written about polygamy, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America is one of the only works to explore the practice from a legal and historical standpoint.

As the title suggests, the book specifically examines the controversy that plural marriage sparked in the nineteenth century. Barringer Gordon, in a Chronicle of Higher Education interview with Scott McLemee, explained, "We just can't understand American history without understanding the vital role this faith, and debates over it, have played."

When Mormons fled to Utah in the 1840s, they felt persecuted and unprotected by their federal government. Once established in Utah, however, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, under Brigham Young's direction, publicly declared its sanction of polygamy in 1852. Victorian-era society was outraged, and the controversy began. In 1890, in the interest of Utah's admission to the Union, the church formally announced it would no longer encourage its members to disobey "the laws of man" by practicing polygamy, a declaration that mostly satisfied anti-polygamists.

Barringer Gordon's book explores the moral and legal conflicts that arose during those four decades between declarations. In McLemee's interview, Barringer Gordon said, "The claim of anti-Mormons was that polygamy was a form of tyranny that could not coexist with democracy.... This was a genuine conflict that played itself out on the political and legal as well as the religious and cultural stages. It made a huge difference in our understanding of the Constitution and in determining what kind of society was fit to take its place among 'the sisterhood of states' as people referred to it."

The controversy boiled down to this: How could anti-polygamists legally prohibit Mormons from their practice of plural marriage without damaging rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution? Some of the documents' most powerful tenets, in fact, safeguarded the Mormons. According to Barringer Gordon, though modern society may assume the Mormons could not possibly have won the conflict, they did, in fact, have legal precedent on their side and they won many key victories along the way. In a Publishers Weekly profile by Jana Riess, Barringer Gordon explained, "We misunderstand the course of the conflict unless we realize that it was a real conflict, right up until the end."

The basis for The Mormon Question was the two-volume dissertation on polygamy in the nineteenth century that Barringer Gordon wrote to fulfill her doctoral requirements at Princeton University. In Riess's article, Barringer Gordon said, "I'm very interested in the kinds of conflicts that lead believers to question the commands of their governments, and vice versa—the conflict of sovereign authority."

A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Barringer Gordon as "a fine scholar whose penetrating research and interdisciplinary approach break new ground in the fields of Mormon studies and legal history."



Publishers Weekly, November 12, 2001, Jana Riess, "Sarah Barringer Gordon: Focus on Religious Freedom," pp. 18-19; November 26, 2001, review of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America, p. 56.


History Department Web site, University of Pennsylvania, (April 16, 2002), faculty profiles.

Penn Law Journal Web site, (fall 2000).

University of Pennsylvania Almanac, (April 29, 1997), "Honors and Other Things."

World Religious News Service, (May 28, 2002), Scott McLemee, "Scholars of Mormonism Confront the History of What Some 'The Next World Religion.'"*

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Barringer Gordon, Sarah 1955-

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