‘We lived it and didn't walk’: What S. Michael Wilcox learned from his ancestors’ experience with plural marriage

In a letter Joseph Smith wrote, included in the Doctrine and Covenants, he spoke of establishing “a welding link . . . between the fathers and the children . . . for we without them cannot be made perfect.” He taught that this “union” must be “whole and complete and perfect,” a “welding together” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:18). The words welding link suggest a chain. Chains are strong things. They hold under great stress and pressure.

Years ago my children and I were performing baptisms in the Jordan River Utah Temple on behalf of our ancestors. Mirrors covered the walls on each side of the font, and we could see eternal reflections trailing into infinite space. Looking down those long corridors of symbolic time, Joseph Smith’s words “a welding link” entered my mind. As I pondered the bonds of “the fathers and the children,” the Spirit whispered, “You are looking at the chain!” That thought gave me pause. I reflected on it for a long time. The images in the mirrors did look like a chain—each receding reflection another link. The first reflection behind me represented my parents, the next my grandparents, then my great-grandparents, and so on back through time.

Looking forward, the first reflection belonged to my children, then my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so on to the last edge of future time. I noticed in both directions that I was in each reflected link. I was in my ancestors and in my descendants. My forebearers looking to the link where I was standing could see themselves in me as could my children looking back up the chain. I was in them. They were in me. We were one “whole and complete and perfect union,” welded together. That moment in the temple was profound. I felt my ancestors’ strength, faith, and convictions, their hopes and encouragement, their experiences and choices flowing down that corridor—through those links. Whether they had the full gospel light or not, they have passed down valuable gifts.

When the faith-shakers and interrupters of rejoicing come, when the logger’s ax bites, or when the impulses to leave threaten me or those I love, I go to a sealing room in the temple. I look into the reflections in the mirrors and ponder the message of the chain. I hear past generations whisper to me, “Draw strength from us!” My child-heart turns to those fathers and mothers. And I hear the waiting generations pleading, “Don’t break the chain! Pass on the gifts and the goodness!” Those stable, uplifting, and protecting perimeters—send them forward! My father-heart turns to the children. We fulfill both sides of that scriptural, spiritual equation. We are parent! We are child! Hearts turn in both directions. Many of you are the beginning of the gospel chain—the initial critical link. How much confidence the Father must have in you to place you in such a powerful, decisive, and significant position! We must remember that when we choose, we often choose for generations.

In section 86 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord speaks of the privilege and necessity of passing on bestowed gifts. He talks particularly of priesthood, but His words apply to all gospel gifts. “Therefore, thus saith the Lord unto you, with whom the [gospel] hath continued through the lineage of your fathers—For ye are lawful heirs. . . . Therefore your life and the [gospel] have remained, and must needs remain through you and your lineage” (Doctrine and Covenants 86:8–10, emphasis added). This principle can be relevant to the many inheritances received from our ancestry and passed on to our descendants but applies here specifically to the truths of the Restoration.

The insights from section 86 can be helpful as we examine our individual inheritances—we can emphasize tradition and honor and accept the blessings of our heritage, trust in our ancestors’ faith, study their experiences, and think about their lives and the good gifts they have passed down to us and which of those gifts we want to pass to our own descendants. These things help us create a connection that can help us hold on, allowing others to lift us up.

► You may also like: How S. Michael Wilcox has held on to his faith despite impulses to leave

Isaac, Madeleine, and Emily

Let me give you an example of the strength of the chain. Polygamy and stories of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages in Nauvoo or Brigham Young’s in Utah can be troubling—unsettling at best and testimony breakers at the worst. Loggers use these stories constantly to cut down trees of faith. I know those faith-shaking feelings and fears. Personally, I wish we’d never had plural marriage. Yet I am a descendent of such unions. On my father’s side I am the sixth link in the gospel chain. The Farleys were in Nauvoo before the Saints, when it was named Commerce. They joined the Church, then endured persecutions, the Martyrdom, Winter Quarters, and the long, hard journey to the Salt Lake Valley. Isaac Farley was a boy at the time of migration.

The family moved to Ogden, and Isaac later fell in love with a convert from Italy named Madeleine Malan. He was twenty-one; she was eighteen. He proposed, and she accepted. They loved each other. They went to Salt Lake City to be married, but when Brigham Young learned Madeleine had a twin sister, named Emily, he told the couple to return to Ogden and bring Emily. He would then seal both sisters to Isaac. I wonder what Madeleine and Isaac talked of as they rode back to Ogden. Isaac proposed to Emily, and the three returned to Salt Lake, where Brigham Young married them. They were obedient believers. At the time Isaac was the youngest man to enter into plural marriage. Of course, I don’t know what conversations were had between Isaac, Madeleine, and Brigham Young or the ones with Emily. They all may have felt fine about the situation, but when I read this story, I can’t help thinking that Brigham Young was a bit too presumptive, to say the least, and, to my twenty-first-century mindset, too controlling and authoritarian. Different times!

The situation was difficult. Isaac had two families to support, and all three had hard, long days of labor. Both sisters bore children. After eleven years as a plural wife, Emily was approached by a man named Myron Abbot, who promised to take better care of her. She divorced Isaac and married Myron, but the marriage proved unhappy. Emily, remembering life with Isaac and Madeleine, divorced again and was resealed to Isaac. She was a strong woman, as was Madeleine. I honor them. Isaac later spent six months in the state penitentiary in 1887 and 1888 after being arrested for cohabitation.

Isaac, Madeleine, and Emily are buried together in the Ogden City Cemetery. Standing by their graves and pondering their lives is a sobering, reverent experience. I wonder how they did it. I admit some may find some elements in their story to be troubling. My sympathy embraces all three individuals, but I also wonder what they knew. What experiences, what moments with the Spirit instilled in them enduring courage and conviction? In many ways they weren’t part of the “standard” family, though their experiences are representative of other plural marriages. They may not have been the ideal Latter-day Saint family. They had their struggles—many I am sure they never shared with their posterity. There may have been times they doubted their faith. I have often wondered and pondered how they held on and remained such committed Church members. I love them for their examples and continually draw strength from them. They were stayers! Section 86-ers! They chose for me! God bless them for it!

I stand in the sealing room, looking in the mirrors, and see the three of them several links back in the reflections. I feel their hearts turn to me and their sympathy with my struggles. I feel their strength. What would I say to Isaac, Madeleine, and Emily if I followed the impulses to leave because of concerns about the stories, doctrines, and accusations that spring from this practice and period of Latter-day-Saint history? What if I walked away due to an overly assertive leader? I believe my ancestors would understand and hope I would carry forward and honor the good gifts they gave so I could still bestow them onto the following generations. The love I feel from them is eternal, not conditional. Yet I hear them question me and those I talk with who are leaving because of these difficulties—they question not with condemnation, not with judgment, but with gentleness—“You will surrender to this impulse to leave? Your faith is so shaken just reading about our lives? About the prophets we followed—Joseph and Brigham? We lived it and didn’t walk!” So we draw strength from the chain. They offer experience, belief, commitment, and love down through the generations.

Lead image: Shutterstock

In this book, author S. Michael Wilcox shares six strategies to cope with honest doubts and help us grow our faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Drawing on his own personal faith journey as well as lessons from scripture, history, and literature, Holding On is an insightful, honest, and empathetic conversation about faith and doubt. The messages in this book urge us to hold onto faith, center the essentials, and resist the impulses to leave—and stay. Available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.

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