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Daniel Peterson

The Persistence of Polygamy

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A very interesting new book on a very controversial topic has just appeared from the John Whitmer Historical Association, the Community of Christ ("RLDS") parallel to the Mormon History Association:

Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds. The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2010).

It is, as I understand it, intended to be the first of a three-volume history of Mormon plural marriage.

Here are the items in it that I found most interesting:

Pages 14-58. Don Bradley, "Mormon Polygamy before Nauvoo? The Relationship of Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger." Bradley examines four crucial issues: Did the relationship between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger occur? If so, when did it occur? If it occurred, was it an affair or a marriage? He argues that the evidence strongly indicates that the relationship did occur and that it is best regarded -- whatever one thinks of polygamy -- as a marriage rather than as an affair, and that it was so regarded by Joseph Smith, Fanny Alger, and most of the others who were in a good position to know about it.

Pages 184-232. Todd M. Compton, "Early Marriage in the New England and Northeastern States, and in Mormon Polygamy: What Was the Norm?" Compton argues that Joseph Smith's marriages to teenage women -- fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball is the most notorious instance (she was nearly fifteen, to be precise) -- violated the age-norms for marriage in New England and the Northeastern states.

Pages 152-183. Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, "The Age of Joseph Smith's Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context." Foster, Keller, and Smith consider a wider evidentiary context than Compton does, looking particularly at the American frontier rather than merely at the more settled New England and Northeastern states, and argue that Joseph's younger brides, while definitely at the early end of the spectrum of marriageable ages, do not particularly stand out for their youth in their time and place. In my judgment, Foster, Keller, and Smith have the better argument. In any event, both Compton and Foster, Keller, and Smith believe that Joseph's marriage to Helen Mar Kimball was never consummated -- which puts the matter in a fundamentally different light in either case.

Pages 99-151. Brian C. Hales, "Joseph Smith and the Puzzlement of 'Polyandry.'" One of the most sensationalized aspects of Joseph Smith's early practice of plural marriage is his sealing to women who were already married. Brian Hales examines these cases very closely and reaches a conclusion that takes away most if not all of the sensationalism. I won't attempt to summarize his very detailed and, to me, quite persuasive case-by-case argument.

Pages 233-256. Ugo A. Perego, "Joseph Smith, the Question of Polygamous Offspring, and DNA Analysis." Perego, a geneticist, continues his methodical study of claims of polygamous descent from Joseph Smith, showing that, still as of today, no biological children can be genetically ascribed to Joseph Smith beyond those that he fathered with Emma.

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Pages 184-232. Todd M. Compton, "Early Marriage in the New England and Northeastern States, and in Mormon Polygamy: What Was the Norm?" Compton argues that Joseph Smith's marriages to teenage women -- fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball is the most notorious instance (she was nearly fifteen, to be precise) -- violated the age-norms for marriage in New England and the Northeastern states.

Of course he does.

Pages 152-183. Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, "The Age of Joseph Smith's Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context." Foster, Keller, and Smith consider a wider evidentiary context than Compton does, looking particularly at the American frontier rather than merely at the more settled New England and Northeastern states, and argue that Joseph's younger brides, while definitely at the early end of the spectrum of marriageable ages, do not particularly stand out for their youth in their time and place. In my judgment, Foster, Keller, and Smith have the better argument. In any event, both Compton and Foster, Keller, and Smith believe that Joseph's marriage to Helen Mar Kimball was never consummated -- which puts the matter in a fundamentally different light in either case.

Of course it does.

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Pages 152-183. Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, "The Age of Joseph Smith's Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context." Foster, Keller, and Smith consider a wider evidentiary context than Compton does, looking particularly at the American frontier rather than merely at the more settled New England and Northeastern states, and argue that Joseph's younger brides, while definitely at the early end of the spectrum of marriageable ages, do not particularly stand out for their youth in their time and place. In my judgment, Foster, Keller, and Smith have the better argument. In any event, both Compton and Foster, Keller, and Smith believe that Joseph's marriage to Helen Mar Kimball was never consummated -- which puts the matter in a fundamentally different light in either case.

Thanks Daniel for this assessment of an essay I contributed statistical analysis to. In the interest of transparency, I have put up a detailed description of my methodology at the FAIR blog. Skeptics are welcome to reproduce my numbers from an online database and to try to demonstrate any flaws.

I am generally favorable towards Compton's contrasting essay. If readers come away holding a position somewhere in between Compton and my co-authors, I will consider it time well spent. For me the goal was to counter the bad media commentary (Hitchens, O'Donnell, Egan) and some of the sloppy statistical analysis at i4m and wivesofjosephsmith.

I do find Compton's focus on Northeastern states statistics a little unfortunate. While one might expect that children will follow their parent's example even after moving away from their birthplace, I found that migrants to the Midwest adapted rapidly to their new locale.

His statistical method has the advantage of being easier to follow than mine, but it is also more noisy (under-sampled) and can't distinguish between first and second marriages. Some of the choices I made create a more favorable comparison to the age profile of Joseph Smith's wives (like throwing out Census brides over 50 or on their second (or higher marriage)). In my defense, that is standard method for academic demography publications.

Unlike our essay, Compton covers Utah plural marriage statistics. He asserts that artificial sex ratios created by polygamy drive marriage ages down, creates lost boys, and increases the age gap between spouses. While the last is no doubt true, I have contested the first two items in my analysis of the 1880 census. However I don't know how well my observations hold up for 1860 when polygamy rates were near their peak and online Census samples are currently too limited to work my magic.

With those caveats in mind, 1880 Census analysis shows that Utah's teenage marriage rates were not significantly different than the western states (but much lower than national stats). There were also significantly less "Lost Boys" in Utah than in the western states but about the same as those nationally. This was quite an accomplishment considering that Utah was over 20% non-Mormon at the time, many of which were willing to risk lowered marital prospects for increased economical opportunities.

Both Compton and I agree that engaging in missionary work was a way that a young man could increase his marital prospects. The parts of Europe that missionaries had success with had favorable ratios for plural marriage and that seems to be born out by a breakdown of the Mormon Immigration Index and Kathryn Daynes (in <em>More Wives than One</em>) linking periodic increases in marriage activity with immigration waves.

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