Polygamy, Brigham Young and His 55 Wives

Brigham Young was probably the most oft-married man in 19th-century America. But the sheer variety of his marriages makes it difficult to make sense of them.
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Brigham Young, Joseph Smith's successor as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had a tremendous number of wives.

Ann Eliza Webb, after she decided to divorce Young in 1873, published an exposé entitled Wife No. 19. A later biography of Ann Eliza Young termed her The Twenty-Seventh Wife. It turns out that she was actually wife No. 52 or thereabouts.

Recent studies, including my own, have found 55 well-documented marriages. There are several debatable cases, but most readers will agree that anything over 50 is rather extravagant as far as marriage is concerned. Brigham Young was probably the most oft-married man in 19th-century America.

The sheer variety of Brigham Young's marriages makes it difficult to make sense of them. He married -- was sealed to, in Mormon parlance -- young (Clarissa Decker, 15) and old (Hannah Tapfield King, 65). He married single women and widows. Perhaps most unusually, he was sealed to his first two mothers-in-law. Perhaps most controversially, he married women who were already married, some to Mormon men in good standing.

Brigham Young and His Wives

As of early 1842, Brigham Young was a contented monogamist. He dearly loved his wife, Mary Ann Angell. "This evening I am with my wife a lone by my fire side for the first time for years," Young wrote in his diary in January 1842. "We injoi it and feele to prase the Lord."

Two months later, Young proposed marriage to a 17-year-old British Mormon named Martha Brotherton who had recently arrived in Illinois. She turned him down and signed an affidavit denouncing his behavior. Nevertheless, in June Young proposed to a second woman, who accepted him.

Young probably felt some level of attraction to Brotherton, whom he had known in England. But lust or sexual attraction was not the reason for his entrance into polygamy. Instead, Young sought a second wife because Joseph Smith instructed him that plural marriage was a divine commandment that would bring a select number of righteous men tremendous blessings for eternity. Young briefly resisted Smith's new teaching, later explaining that it was the only time in his life that he "desired the grave." Once he accepted it, however, he accepted it wholeheartedly.

After his first plural marriage, Young married three more times before Smith's 1844 murder. Young did not live with any of his additional wives, and they bore him no children during these years. During the year after Smith's death, Young married around 15 women. Celestial marriage became more of an earthly reality now, as Young began to have children with several of his wives. His rate of marriage peaked in early 1846, when he married nearly 20 additional wives in the church's Nauvoo, Ill., temple. Shortly thereafter, Brigham Young headed for the American West, bringing with him many of the women who had married him over the previous four years.

While writing about 55 marriages creates unusual challenges for a biographer, Young married a string of fascinating women who are a treasure trove of information about early Mormon polygamy and Young's family life:
  • Augusta Adams, disappointed at being one of many, wrote scores of letters to her husband complaining of financial and sexual neglect, expressing jealousy of other wives, and even swearing at Young. Still, when outsiders portrayed Mormon women as slaves of their husbands, Adams sharply defended plural marriage in public forums.
  • Lydia Farnsworth begged Young to marry her. In 1855, she met with him and expressed her "conviction that I belong to you." Two years later, she repeated her desire "to be sealed to you for Eternity." Young curtly dismissed her entreaties. "[W]hen I wish to have any woman sealed to me," he upbraided her in a letter, "I shall reveal the fact. I am not guided by revelations coming through any woman." For unknown reasons, he later changed his mind and granted Farnsworth's request.
  • Zina Huntington cried before she moved into a home with a number of Young's other wives. "I wept," she wrote, "yes wept bitterness of Soul y[e]a sorrow and tears that wore rung from a heavy hart." Though she admired Young fervently, she knew what she would lose by joining a polygamous household.
Adams, Farnsworth and Huntington were all married to other men at the time of their sealing to Young. These instances involve the sort of scandalous stories that are undeniably intriguing about early Mormon polygamy: jilted husbands, scorned wives and considerable gossip.

Beyond such sensationalistic material, Young's marriages reveal a great deal about his personality and humanity. In interactions with his wives, he was at various times romantic and aloof, generous and stingy. Even as an older man, he could fall in love, but he could also grow cold to those he had once loved. As was the case with many of his other followers, he could both thrill his wives and deeply disappoint them.

Young did not care very much what others thought about his marriages, and he had little patience -- or time -- for his wives when they expressed dissatisfaction. When wives demanded divorces, though, he granted them. He also bought homes for women in outlying Utah settlements for wives who preferred a greater measure of independence or privacy. At the same time, he tried dearly to create a harmonious and united family, instructing his wives and children to join him for prayer each day.

Regardless of the strong moral reactions polygamy has always generated, plural marriage showcases one of the defining traits of early Mormonism -- its sheer audacity. When they bumped up against the conventions and limits of 19th-century politics, economics, theology and marriage, early Mormon leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young proposed their own audacious paths. Young led thousands of beleaguered refugees across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains, attempted to establish an independent political kingdom at a time of expanding American power, wanted his followers to consecrate all their property to the church and married nearly three score women. Many of the women in Young's life, such as Augusta Adams, Lydia Farnsworth and Zina Huntington, were equally bold. They made choices that severed old bonds, opened up new possibilities and perhaps inevitably brought them a measure of grief in the process. Given such audacity, Brigham Young's life -- and his marriages -- necessarily produced a heady mixture of failure and success, but it was never dull.

John G. Turner teaches religious studies at George Mason University and is the author of 'Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet' (Harvard University Press).

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