Family Life Among the Mormons

views updated

Family Life Among the Mormons

Magazine article

By: Lloyd Bryce

Date: 1890

Source: Bryce, Lloyd. "Family Life Among the Mormons." North American Review. 150 (1890):339-351.

About the Author: The North American Review is one of America's oldest literary magazines, published from 1815 until 1940 and from 1968 to present. In the early 1800's, the journal was considered the country's leading literary publication. Lloyd Bryce was it's editor from 1889 until 1896.


In the late nineteenth century, as the territory of Utah, populated largely by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or Mormons) worked toward joining the United States in statehood, one fundamental issue stood in the way: Mormons of that era preached and practiced polygamy, the practice of men marrying multiple wives simultaneously.

The practice of polygamy is not unknown in world history or even in Judeo-Christian philosophy: Abraham, the man claimed as the spiritual father of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, took multiple wives, as did King David, King Solomon, and many other prominent characters in the Old Testament. However mainstream Christian practice and teaching have consistently held that marriage is to be monogamous, and in 1604, the British Parliament enacted a law making bigamy, or taking two wives, a crime.

When the American colonies left British rule, most of the newly formed states passed their own anti-polygamy laws; Virginia was the first to do so, voting in 1788 to prohibit polygamy, making the crime punishable by the death penalty. In 1862, the U.S. Congress enacted the Morrill Act, setting penalties up to a $500 fine and five years in prison for acts of bigamy committed in any U.S. territory. Later laws prohibited bigamists from voting or holding public office, and the final such law, passed in 1892, prohibited polygamists from immigrating to the U.S.

Utah's entry into the United States was delayed for several years by contention over polygamous marriage. From 1849 to 1887, the territory made six unsuccessful attempts to become a state. The final effort failed despite a proposed Utah law making polygamy a misdemeanor, which Congress held was not strict enough. In 1890, the church's president formally announced a change in church doctrine, and polygamy was made a felony in Utah. In 1896, the Utah territory was formally admitted to the United States.

While outsiders' images of polygamy often resemble a harem in which one man lives with numerous wives and dozens of children, the reality was much different. Polygamy was never practiced by the majority of Mormon men, even during the nineteenth century. Mormon polygamists generally took two wives, though some took many more. The practice of polygamy lasted as long as it did because Mormons believed their right to practice it was protected under the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion. However, federal courts held otherwise, repeatedly upholding laws prohibiting bigamy and polygamy.

As part of the Mormon church's efforts to improve its image in preparation for statehood, the church spent more than $140,000 on an extensive publicity campaign intended to improve non-Mormons' image of the church. During this period, a child of Brigham Young, the Mormon leader who led the exodus to Utah, shared his experience growing up in a polygamous family.


The common statement that plural marriage debases husbands, degrades wives, and brutalizes offspring, is false. It was not the case in ancient Israel; it is far less so in this enlightened age. If any one wishes to prove this, here in Utah are men, women, and, above all, children to speak for themselves.

My father, Brigham young, had fifty-six living children, all born healthy, bright, and without "spot or blemish" in body or mind. Thirty-one of the number were girls; twenty-five were boys. Seven died in infancy, three in childhood, seven more since reaching maturity. What bright memories we cherish of the happy times we spent beneath our father's tender watch-care, supplemented by the very sweetest mother-love ever given to mortals! Ever thinking of us and our welfare, father was particularly anxious about our education. Deprived of all advantages in his youth but the often-mentioned "thirteen-days' schooling," he determined we should have the opportunities he had missed….

In the year 1868, the University of Descret was organized. Those of us who were sufficiently advanced at once entered upon the year's course. The old council-house, where the school was first opened, saw a happy crowd of young people that first year, who accepted such innovations as departments, class-rooms, offices, and a faculty with cheerful adaptation. The young idea shot bravely toward the newly-risen sun of Progress, tipping the arrows with intelligence and perseverance, even when the feathers were quilled into such points as the rapid diagramming of sentences in place of the old "Mary's a noun because it's a name"; as concert reading, which sorely taxed unused tongues; as weekly compositions, which were a sad necessity; and as the order and regularity which marked the very tap of the bell.

In my papers is a relic of the sound university year in the shape of a modest printed paper, called the College Lantern, on whose editorial staff appear the names of two of Brigham Young's children, a son and daughter, among the weighty list of editors; six there were in all.

Let any one who wishes to know the mental calibre of polygamous children ask the genial and learned Dr. Park, who has stood at the head of this university for twenty years, who have been his brightest and keenest pupils. His unhesitating answer will be a convincing argument for my position….

Music was, from before my remembrance, the constant companion, bore, and comfort of father's family. Himself a natural musician and a fine bass singer, he early brought musical instruments—piano, organs, and a beautiful harp—and procured as competent musical teachers for the children as the country afforded. We inherited, almost universally, his taste in this direction, and the old piano in the long parlor was rarely allowed to rest its weary keys, but was ever laughing under Phebe's nor Nettie's hands, sighing under Fannie's or Ellie's skilful touch, or groaning or rattling beneath the infliction of more juvenile learners.

How pleasant were the seasons of evening prayer when ten or twelve mothers with their broods of children, together with the various old ladies and orphans who dwelt under the sheltering care of this roof, came from every nook and corner of the quaint, old-fashioned, roomy house at the sound of the prayer-bell. Even the bell has a memory all its own, for no matter how faintly the sound came to our distant ears, we always knew whether father rang it or some of the others. He had a peculiar, measured, deliberate ting-tang that could not be successfully imitated….

To the clang of the familiar bell we crowded from upstairs and downstairs, each one taking his accustomed place, mothers surrounded by their children, while near father sat Aunt Eliza Snow, the honored plural wife of Joseph Smith, the prophet. A little merry or grave chat; questions asked and answered; then the quiet paternal request, "come now, let us have prayers," succeeded by a subdued rustle as every knee bowed and every tongue was stilled while the dear voice prayed for "the poor, the needy, the sick and the afflicted, the widow and the fatherless, that He might be a stay and a staff to the aged and a guide to the youth." The prayer was always a short, simple, earnest one, never too wearisome for the tiniest restless listener, while the sweetly solemn hush of the room held a calm over even the baby's laughing voice.

With the general amen, all resumed their seats and were at liberty to return to their rooms or to stay and hear the chat that usually followed. Sometimes, especially on Sunday evenings, the girls would be requested to sing and play, or we would all join in a hymn. Afterward father would kiss the children, dandle a baby on his knee with his own particular accompaniment of "link-e-toodle-ladle-iddle-oodle," surprising baby into round-eyed wonder by the odd noise; then a general good-night and we would all separate, father returning to his duties in the office. What a blessed time that regular, never-neglected prayer-time was! For every one complied with one of the few unwritten laws of the household that nothing but sickness was an excuse for absence.

In summer we were happy with our school, the frequent May walks, picnics, swimming in the "font," and all sorts of summer games and amusements. In winter, school for the days, varied by skating and sliding down hill; the evenings were very short to us, for they were filled with private theatricals, corn-parching and popping, munching apples and walnuts, or making molasses candy, for which a large hook was hung in one of the lower rooms to "pull" the candy into a creamy whiteness.

We had our troubles. We thought them very real in those days; but their chief cause lay in the violation of some necessary rule of discipline. Our meals were served promptly, and the unlucky wight who was an hour behind time was apt to go hungry till the next meal-time. This seemed severe, but it made us prompt and punctual. Sometimes, too, were apt to imagine that some were more favored than others, and that their supply of a dainty exceeded the strict measure of justice.

We were so numerous that we seldom went beyond our own home for amusement except to an occasional dancing party or theatre. Instead, we got up theatres and concerts, pantomimes and minstrel shows, with unwearied vigor and fun. Father was seldom so busy that he would not spend an hour or so witnessing the theatrical performance or aiding in the final rites of pulling candy and braiding it into creamy sticks of delicious sweetness….

As a physiological fact, of the fifty-six children born to Brigham Young, not one was halt, lame, or blind, all being perfect in body and of sound mind and intellect; no defects of mind or body save those general ones shared by humanity. The boys are a sound, healthy, industrious, and intelligent group of men, noted everywhere for their integrity and for the excellent care and attention bestowed upon their families. In short, the name Young is a synonym of a good, kind, faithful husband. Among them are lawyers, merchants, a railroad king, a banker, an architect, a civil engineer, and a manufacturer. One of them is a colonel in the United States army, while several have graduated from the Annapolis naval school and from the Ann Arbor law school.

The girls are finely developed physically, quick and bright in intellect, high-spirited, and often talented, especially in a musical way. A few of them were beautiful girls, and are still handsome women. All are nice girls, kind in disposition, generous and social in their natures. In short, outside of one or two of either sex, they are a family that any man might well be proud to call his own. This is given by way of argument, not boasting.

In describing the family of Brigham Young, I have in the main described the large polygamous families of Heber C. Kimball, Daniel H. Wells, Orson Pratt, and oth-ers, who are or have been our leading men, with the various differences of character and mind naturally inherited by the various children.

The women, or "wives," as they were affectionately termed, of these various families, undoubtedly saw heartaches and sad hours. Do they not suffer, let me ask, in monogamy? Our mothers were the pioneers in this new order of things, and they had no experiences of elders to guide them, no friendly voice to say, "Here did I stumble; take heed lest ye too fall." Yet they were sustained by the knowledge that their sorrows were such as broadened and deepened the channels of their beings, and their tears watered into existence the lovely flowers of unselfishness and charity.


Polygamy is still practiced in the twenty-first century; by some estimates two percent of the population of Utah, or around 40,000 people were living in polygamous relationships in 1998. Critics of the practice, besides arguing that it is inherently wrong on moral and religious grounds, also raise concerns that polygamists may forcibly marry minor females. They also worry that property law in most states does not clearly define inheritance or paternity in cases involving multiple wives.

Proponents of polygamy point out that courts have consistently struck down state statutes restricting private sexual acts between consenting adults. They also note that cohabitation without marriage is legal, even if the arrangement involves one man and several women. Finally, they argue that the law allows multiple husbands or wives in quick succession, therefore it should not criminalize a person who wishes to permanently commit to two spouses.

In 2001, Tom Green, an admitted polygamist, was sentenced to five years in prison for having sex with a minor; the child in question was his wife, whom he married when she was thirteen years old. Green appealed the verdict to the Utah Supreme Court, which rejected his appeal. In 2004, a married couple and a proposed second wife sought a Utah marriage license, which they were denied. The three filed suit against the state, arguing that their rights had been violated. The judge hearing the case dismissed it, noting a long history of court decisions upholding the state's polygamy prohibition.



Mackert, Mary. The Sixth of Seven Wives: Escape from Modern Day Polygamy. North Salt Lake, Utah: DMT Publishing, 2000.

Solomon, Dorothy. Daughter of the Saints: Growing Up In Polygamy. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2003.

van Wagoner, Richard S. Mormon Polygamy: A History. New York: Signature Books, 1992.


Frank, Robert H. "Polygamy and the Marriage Market: Who Would Have the Upper Hand?" New York Times. 155(2006):C3.

Knickerbocker, Brad. "Crackdown on Polygamy Group." Christian Science Monitor. 98(2006):2-4.

Murr, Andrew. "Polygamist on the Lam." Newsweek. 147(2006):37.

Web sites

Georgetown University Law School. "Royce Bernstein, Friend or Foe: Mormon Women's Suffrage as a Pawn in the Polygamy Debate, 1856–1896." 1999 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

Public Broadcasting Service. "Brigham Young." 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

USA Today. "Polygamy Laws Expose Our Own Hypocrisy." October 3, 2004 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

About this article

Family Life Among the Mormons

Updated About content Print Article