ymf book review: carol lynn pearson’s “the ghost of eternal polygamy”
My first experience with the doctrine of polygamy came when I was in 6th grade. I was quite the book nerd, and I took it upon myself to read through my mom’s The Work and the Glory collection. (It says a lot about the literary quality of the series that it was totally accessible to an 11-year-old.) In Volume 6 of the fictional Church-history saga, the Steed family hears the first whisperings of the controversial practice, and I was devastated. Tears poured down my cheeks as I read about Nathan, Lydia, and the rest of the Steed family’s torment. My heart broke, and I was overwhelmed.
As I kept reading, however, I remember feeling what my little sixth-grade heart could only describe as peace. I was impressed with Lydia’s faith, selflessness, and her willingness to “share” her husband with her single sister-in-law, Jessica (in retrospect, wtf).
Gerald Lund’s imagining of a conversation between Joseph Smith and teenager Olivia Steed, however, is the most alarming part of Lund’s efforts to appease the reader’s reaction to polygamy. In the scene (which can be found on pages 566-570 of Volume 6), Olivia approaches Joseph, explains her concerns, and then allows him to swear her to secrecy as he explains the practice. The whole conversation is coercive and condescending, and the character of Joseph Smith plays off their unequal power dynamic. He explains that it was a commandment of God, asks leading questions, and then promises that her family will not be asked to live the commandment.
That scene had a profound effect on 11-year-old Kate, and it perpetuated much of the Mormon folklore surrounding polygamy. We don’t speak of it, it was a commandment we don’t understand, it was for the good of the widows, it was an obedience test, it’s a line in the sand to determine who is truly faithful and who isn’t, etc., etc.
Like Olivia, young me was comforted, and I trusted Joseph (or Gerald Lund’s rendition of Joseph). As I got older however, I became less and less okay with this weird Mormon tradition, as I slowly learned that most of the “reasons” we gave for why polygamy happened (The widows! Building up the kingdom!) were bulls**t, that it’s still sanctioned, and most of all, that our sealing practices continue to perpetuate it.
My polygamy angst came to a head a little over 3 years ago. I was fresh off the mission, and I was attending my first ever temple sealing—and it was my grandfather’s. Six months before I left for Ecuador, my grandma passed away after a long battle with cancer. When I returned, my grandfather was engaged to be married—I’m sorry—engaged to be sealed.
My step-grandmother is amazing. She’s been a delightful addition to the family and she takes very good care of my grandpa. However, all I felt in that sealing room, witnessing the ordinance I was supposed to aspire to more than any other, was despair. My grandmother had no say in this. My grandfather, at 82-years old, had decided to seal himself to a second woman for time and all eternity. I was confused, I was resentful, and I was angry. My stake-president father had no satisfying answers to my doubts and concerns, and my mother preferred to ignore them.
For this reason, among countless others, Carol Lynn Pearson’s new book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy may be a literal Godsend. Pearson approaches the topic with intelligence, respect, and most of all—deep, deep empathy. Interspersed between the chapters of this cathartic book are stories collected, experiences from men and women in the Church and formerly of the Church who share the very real pain that is still being caused by the doctrine of polygamy. It makes this book unique in the sense that although Carol Lynn Pearson is the author, she’s also, more than anything, a listener.
In the chapters themselves Pearson makes a strong case for her overall thesis—that polygamy, as it has been and continues to be practiced in the LDS church, is not of God. She astutely acknowledges,
“We Mormons don’t like to look at the errors of our prophet-heroes. And we quickly come to the conclusion that it may look like a mistake but it really wasn’t, that God was in charge and this thing that looks bad had to happen for the larger good. Either way, the plot thickens. And among all the people we call ‘prophets,’ why would Brother Joseph be the only one who did not err large?” (41).
Pearson address this error on Brother Joseph’s part without vitriol. Woven throughout the history she recounts and the solutions she suggests is a deep love for the prophet of the restoration. Pearson’s understanding of and personal relationship with the prophet makes the book accessible to those who may lie on the more true-believing end of the Mormon spectrum.
My favorite part of the book was Pearson’s clear assertion that gender inequality will never be resolved in the LDS church until we end this practice once and for all. She writes,
“In our small Mormon universe, I submit that the first large step toward that better day…the first large step has got to be disassembling the paradigm of polygamy. That pattern functions as a unique and sad overlay to ordinary, run-of-the-mill patriarchy, and seeps through as a powerful glue that holds firmly in place the fiction of male centrality” (176).
The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy is necessary reading for any member of the Church who has struggled with this doctrine. You’re not alone and you never have been. The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy has given me hope for a better way.
My one unanswered question: since CLP is an advocate for LGBT+ rights, how would gay marriage fit in with the solution she proposed? I wasn’t annoyed that she didn’t include that in the majority of the book, but her conclusion was very heteronormative. I want her solution to play out…it would be great for women in the church, but if it happened according to her plan I could see people digging their heels in on “one man, one woman” marriages.
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