Mitt Romney, the History of Marriage, and Polygamy

I am happy to present a guest post from Todd M. Compton, a prolific and sophisticated historian who interests range from Classics to Mormonism.

Among many great books, articles, and essays, I am a great admirer of Todd's landmark In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. The book is a wonderfully rich account of Joseph Smith's plural marriages, providing a very human portrait of the nearly three dozen women who married the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Currently, Todd is writing a biography of Jacob Hamblin, a pioneer and Indian missionary, to name two aspects of his long and colorful life.

On May 12, 2012, three days after President Obama declared his support for legalizing same-sex marriage, Mitt Romney spoke to graduates at the conservative evangelical Liberty University, at Lynchburg, Virginia, and said, “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” Fox News reported, “The remark drew a loud applause for [Romney] who faced a big test in trying to win over evangelical voters.” On Mitt Romney’s website, he states, “When I am President, . . . I will fight for a federal amendment defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.” Clearly, making same-sex marriage illegal has become a central issue in Romney’s efforts to win over social conservative voters in the Republican party, and distinguish himself from President Obama. Romney’s reasons for banning same-sex marriage therefore deserve careful scrutiny. In an interview with Fox News on May 10, 2012, he said: “I believe that marriage has been defined the same way for literally thousands of years, by virtually every civilization in history, and that marriage is literally by its definition a relationship between a man and a woman.”
Thus Romney appeals to history as the foundation of his position, which is an invitation to historians, such as myself, to become involved in this discussion. And any responsible historian will quickly agree that Romney’s statement, with its phrases “every civilization” and “literally thousands of years” is far too sweeping. The obvious practice arguing against Romney’s position is polygamy. Polygamy is accepted as legal in two of the foundational religious texts of civilization: the Jewish Bible and the Qu'ran (and is practiced in those books by the highest role models possible, prophets). While influential branches of Judaism banned polygamy in about 1000 AD, Muslims continue to practice plural marriage today.
Closer to home, Romney ignores his own ancestors. As I have shown in my paper, “Plural Lives: Mitt Romney's Polygamous Heritage,” of Mitt’s four families of paternal great-great-grandparents, three were polygamous. Parley P. Pratt, one of the dynamic early apostles of Mormonism, married twelve wives and Mitt descends from Mary Wood, the second plural wife. Archibald Newell Hill married five wives, and Mitt’s great-great-grandmother was the first wife, Isabella Hood. The colorful German figure, Carl Heinrich (“Charles Henry”) Wilcken, wedded four wives; Mitt descends from the first wife, Eliza Christine Carolina Reiche. (Miles Romney and Elizabeth Gaskell were monogamists.)
Both of Mitt’s paternal great-grandparent families were polygamous. Miles Park Romney married fives wives; Mitt’s great-grandmother was the first wife, Hannah Hood Hill. Helaman Pratt married three wives, including two daughters of Charles Henry and Eliza Wilcken: Anna J. Dorothy (“Dora”) Wilcken (the second wife, Mitt’s great-grandmother) and Bertha Christine Wilcken Stewart (the third wife).
These family histories provide a revealing cross-section of Mormon plural marriage. Three of the husbands were required to take plural wives by the prophet at the time, Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. For example, according to family traditions, Parley Pratt “begged Joseph [Smith] not to insist upon his entering into polygamous marriages, but Joseph was adamant.” All these marriages were viewed by the U.S. or state government as non-standard (not marriages between “one man and one woman”), and therefore were illegal. They were solemnized in defiance of state and federal law (an example of what historian D. Michael Quinn calls Mormon “theocratic ethics”). The Latter-day Saints profoundly believed they had the religious right to marry in their non-monogamous way, as God, through Joseph Smith, had commanded the practice of polygamy, in a revelation that is still in Mormon scripture, Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Mormon leaders taught that polygamy was the highest, holiest form of marriage. In fact, they even argued that monogamy was a flawed marriage practice that caused the downfall of civilizations. Apostle George Q. Cannon, later a member of the First Presidency, said, on October 9, 1869, “It is a fact worthy of note that the shortest-lived nations of which we have record have been monogamic. . . . [The Roman empire] was a monogamic nation, and the numerous evils attending that system early laid the foundation for that ruin which eventually overtook her.” Brigham Young made similar statements.
Mormons and the U.S. government fought a protracted legal battle on this issue until 1890, when Mormon prophet Wilford Woodruff agreed that the church would give up any further plural marriages. Partially as a result, Utah was finally able to gain statehood in 1896. However, many Mormons felt a religious duty to continue practicing polygamy, and so founded colonies in Mexico as polygamous “cities of refuge,” under the guidance of and with the full consent of church leaders in Utah. Mitt Romney’s paternal great-grandparents were part of this migration, which remarkably transplanted north American, Utah culture to northern Mexico. Both Miles Park Romney and Helaman Pratt took their last plural wives in Mexico, in 1897 and 1898.
While some commentators have emphasized that both Obama and Romney have polygamy in their backgrounds, only Romney has put forward the history of “traditional” marriage, and how it is defined, as a partisan issue. Some investigative reporter needs to ask him: does he regard modern Arabic countries in the Middle East and Africa, with their legal polygamy, as not measuring up to standards of civilization? Does he regard Judaic culture, from the Old Testament times to about 1000 AD, as also less than civilized? And were his great-great and great-grandfathers and mothers right to practice non-traditional marriage (by his definition)? If not, should they have gone against the direct commands of Mormon prophets? Does he view Mormon prophets, from Joseph Smith to Heber J. Grant, as wrong in their practice and preaching of polygamy?


Marcello Jun said…
Excellent post, Todd.

I remember as young Latter-day Saint reading about all the federal legal "persecution" inflicted on the Mormon Church about marriage and family practices that the mainstream culture deemed unnatural, and couldn't help but feel the pain and sorrow of an oppressed minority.

It's unbelievable how the historical irony is completely lost on so many LDS -- and most of its Church leaders. The irony seems so much more acute and sharp with the leadership of the oppressing side (both religious in Mormonism and political in Republicanism) and the historical heritage of an oppressed group (in Mormonism) coalescing into just one person.

It would be literary if not so real, but in either case it's tragic.

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