A recent New York Times op-ed by Timothy Egan has suggested that we, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ought to be held accountable for our ugly polygamist past. He feels that when people like Mitt Romney say things like “My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs,” they should be held to answer for a legacy of child brides, abuse, and debauchery.
With all due respect Mr. Egan… bite me.
Seriously, it’s high time we LDS dropped the apologetic hand-wringing. What did we do in the grand sweep of American history, that we have to stand hat-in-hand before the American public and beg for mercy? I mean, it’s not like our neighbors smell that much sweeter. What is it about marrying more than one woman that makes Mormons more culpable and reprehensible than other married and unmarried American folk – past and present?
As it so happens, I do have a bit of polygamous family history myself. My family line comes from Jane Scott – third wife of twelve of my great-great grandfather Aaron Johnson. Aaron Johnson was a friend of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, spent the late 1840s shuttling Mormon pioneers across the Great Plains, and founded the city of Springville, Utah in 1850. He married my great-great grandmother Jane in 1845 in Nauvoo. I don’t know the exact ages of all the women he married. I do know there were twelve of them, and one of them was about 17 years old when he married her at the age of 46. I do not know if the marriages were happy, unhappy, or indifferent (or a mixture of all three – as many marriages often are). I have no reason to suspect abuse or coercion in any of the marriages out of the ordinary in late 1800s America.
Reviewing all this, I’m left wondering what, exactly, I’m supposed to be apologizing for in my family history that any other American is not.
“Child brides?” Nope. Common stuff back then – especially in agrarian societies. In fact, older men were often seen as more attractive marriage prospects due to the fact that they were more likely to be financially established – something far more important to people in those days than today.
Arranged marriages? Please. I’d wager half the marriages in the United States in the late 1800s – in Utah or out – were arranged by the girl’s parents.
Abuse? I see no evidence that Mormons beat their wives any more than any other God-fearing American Christian man.
Entrapment? No. Actually I believe late 1800s Salt Lake City had some of the most liberal divorce laws in the entire nation. If Mormons were hoping to enslave their women, they were doing a lousy job of it compared to their monogamist neighbors.
Neglect? No. Aaron Johnson was actually a relatively wealthy man and it doesn’t seem his wives suffered much more than any monogamist farmer’s wife in the USA at that time.
So here’s the rub. If Americans like Mr. Egan actually took the time to observe their own marital histories, they’d probably find that there isn’t anything that they are accusing 1800s Mormons of, that their own great-great grandpappies weren’t doing as well. While my great-great grandfather was working to build a town and support 12 wives and their children, I imagine the ancestors of perhaps more than one or two New York Times staffers were busy raping prostitutes in shady urban back-alleys. At the same time that the ancestors of contemporary Bostonians were forcing their teenage daughters into arranged marriages. And at the same time that the great-great grandads of modern Texans were beating their wives senseless every evening.
And they want me to beg their forgiveness for my history?
That’s not even mentioning the teenage rape and pregnancy that is not only rampant in our modern society, but even promoted and glorified in our pop culture.
Tell you what… I’ll make a deal with my fellow Americans.
The moment you guys are willing to apologize for your ugly monogamist past, I’ll be willing to apologize for my ugly polygamist past.
Until then, I suggest you mind your own business.