A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian investigates women’s power and agency within the early Mormon community.
Ulrich (History/Harvard Univ.; Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, 2007, etc.), a MacArthur Fellow whose previous subjects have included colonial wives and early American midwives, has a personal investment in this deeply researched, well-informed history of marriage and family life among 19th-century Mormons: her eight great-grandparents and four great-great-grandparents migrated to Utah before 1860, and she grew up knowing that their stories included polygamy. Drawing on a rich trove of diaries and letters, the author follows many Mormon families as they confronted poverty, illness, privations, and persecution in their quest to establish a community where they could practice their faith and enact their social vision. She traces their journeys, beginning in 1835, from Ohio to Illinois, across the muddy flats of Iowa, to Nebraska, and finally, in 1850, to Salt Lake City. Plural marriage set the Latter-day Saints apart from many other sects eager to create an earthly utopia, and it stands as a puzzle that Ulrich can only partially explain. Some biographers accuse Mormon founder Joseph Smith of promoting the practice “to justify illicit relations with vulnerable young women,” and Ulrich concedes, “there is some evidence to support that assumption.” Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, both having multiple wives, defended polygamy as sanctioned by the Bible. Although some found it repugnant, many men took several wives, and women entered freely into those alliances. Some women saw marriage to a church leader as a path “to an elite inner circle.” Not surprisingly, though, polygamy “generated conflict and gossip,” anger and yearning. Besides considering the emotional toll of plural marriage, Ulrich questions the spiritual needs—and desire for authoritarian leadership— that drew adherents to Mormonism and sustained their faith even under extreme duress. The trek west was marked by graves.
While Ulrich creates an absorbing history of intimate lives, individuals’ religious passions and acceptance of polygamy remain mysterious.