Why polygamy isn’t as black and white as it seems, according to Latter-day Saint historian Brittany Chapman Nash

by | Sep. 04, 2021

Polygamy can sometimes feel like a taboo topic among Latter-day Saints. Some might feel obligated to defend the religious practice and others might feel that they have to accept it. So how do we deepen our understanding of this part of Church history—and more importantly, those who lived it?

In this week’s episode of All In, host Morgan Jones speaks with Brittany Chapman Nash, the author of the new book Let’s Talk about Polygamy. From her first conversation about polygamy in middle school to her studies as a Latter-day Saint historian, Nash discusses how she has come to appreciate this part of Church history. She also explains why we can be believing Latter-day Saints and still have a difficult relationship with polygamy today.

Listen to the full interview in the player below or by clicking here. You can also read a full transcript here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Morgan Jones: You have [said] that it's important to also explore the stories from polygamous individuals and their children, like these stories of lived polygamy. And you talk about how everything is not as black and white as it may seem. And I think this is true of all history. When we look back on it, it seems like oh, this is like very black and white, this is very clear. And then actually, things are not, and they're not now, so why would they be then? But for example, you say not all polygamous marriages were unhappy, and not all monogamous marriages were happy. So what did you learn in your research about these polygamous homes and whether people were happy in them at all or not?

Brittany Chapman Nash: For some reason when I began learning about polygamy, I viewed it as something different than monogamy, like totally separate worlds. And in some way they were, because they were juggling different dynamics. But in other ways, not at all. I mean, it's the same institution of marriage. And so why should I expect that plural marriages would either be all unhappy–which was kind of my initial perception, like “How could it be otherwise? Everybody was unhappy and they hated their situations.”

But you know people adapted, some people came to really appreciate the relationships within their plural marriages with their husbands, with their sister wives. Some marriages may have thrived even more because of the more autonomous relationship that many women had with their husbands. Many women ran their own households and the husband came occasionally to see them.

Other families all lived together in the same household, and they all worked together in creating a very smooth-running household and others came to really appreciate that. And then there were others who were in those exact same situations and it was just miserable because of the different personalities and different circumstances in their individual situations. So, I would say some monogamous marriages thrive and others are extremely difficult. And some monogamous marriages last, and some do not last, and the same is true of plural marriages. Some lasted, some did not.

MJ: Right. Which makes a lot of sense. Are there any specific accounts associated with polygamy . . . that you found particularly faith-promoting?

BCN: There are many different accounts that really affected me, sort of brought new understanding of what was possible in human relationships as far as levels of patience, forgiveness, acceptance, willingness to try to work together. . . . One woman that comes to mind [is] Martha Cragun Cox . . . . I just particularly love her writings, I've just been thinking about them.

She's one woman who found great joy in her relationship with her sister wives in a way that opened my eyes to the positive aspects of what could be in these relationships. So, she had two other sister wives and gave this beautiful statement about how grateful she was to know that . . . Let me see if I can find it real quick.

MJ: Okay. Yeah, take your time.

BCN: It just makes me so emotional every—almost every time I read [it], I'm just like, “Oh, how do they do this?”

MJ: Well, even when you said like, she had this beautiful relationship with her sister wives, I kind of got chills a little bit because I'm just like, man, these are better women, than me.

BCN: Yeah—they learned things that we cannot learn in the way that our marital arrangements are now.

MJ: Yeah.

BCN: I think they had different joys and different sorrows than we do. And maybe richer experiences and different blessings. So Martha Cragun Cox wrote of her sister wives, she said, “To me, it is a joy to know that we laid the foundation of a life to come while we lived in that plural marriage, that we three who loved each other more than sisters, children of one Mother Love will go hand in hand together, down through all eternity. That knowledge is worth more to me than gold, and more than compensates for all the sorrow I have ever known.”

And, yeah, that just gives me chills every time I read that because they have such a difference of perspective, viewing a fullness of relationships and the reality that in being sealed to the same husband, they were also sealed together as wives and how much they valued that. And Martha . . . had a lot of sorrows in her life. So . . . for her to say, it's worth all the sorrow I have ever known—it's profound.

Image titlePolygamy has raised questions for many modern Latter-day Saints. Let’s Talk about Polygamy, written by historian Brittany Chapman Nash, offers a candid and engaging history of polygamy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through the voices of those who practiced it. Nash helps readers understand not only the facts and chronological story of polygamy but also the how and why. Why did Latter-day Saints embrace polygamy? How did it work? And what does the history of polygamy mean for Church members today?

 While outlining the known history of polygamy among the Saints, Nash explores sensitive issues, such as how and why Joseph Smith introduced the practice, his wife Emma Hale Smith’s response to it, and the origins of the plural marriage revelation (today known as Doctrine and Covenants 132). The book also examines how polygamy evolved and affected the Saints in Utah and in the wake of anti-polygamy legislation. The Saints had varying experiences with polygamy—some positive, others not—and through the use of original sources, Nash allows the participants themselves to give voice to the breadth of the Saints’ thoughts and feelings. Though some aspects of the practice of polygamy may never be fully understood, the examples of sacrifice, conviction, and commitment to the gospel from the Saints who practiced it may help readers find understanding and reconciliation and ultimately strengthen their own faith.

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