Polygamy and Mormonism – Interview with historian Richard Kitchen

Ein Q History-Interview mit Richard Kitchen zur Geschichte der Mormonen.

Turn of the century photograph of Joseph F. Smith, his wives, and his children.Aside from the Münster Anabaptists there were other groups, who had taken polygamy into their belief system. One of those groups were the Mormons. This religion was founded in the beginning of the 19th century in the northeast of the USA. It calls itself „The Church of Jesus Christ of Letter-day Saints“. Their first prophet was Joseph Smith, who according to them received the book Mormon from an angel. Mormons regard this book as a holy scripture.

Not long after Mormons were persecuted because of parts of their belief system, like polygamy. They were forced to move west and finally settled in Salt Lake Valley in what was to become the state of Utah. Today still round about two thirds of the population of Utah call themselves Mormons. We spoke with the historian Richard D. Kitchen, who himself is a Mormon, about polygamy.

Who are you as a Mormon and as a scholar?

Richard Kitchen: „Personally, as a Mormon … my family has been members for a long time. So I was always raised in the faith. But as a scholar I have always looked at how different groups interacted with each other. The area of emphasis that I do my research on has dealt with mormons in the 19th century and their interaction with American Indians. So it’s been fairly separate from my own personal faith or beliefs.“

Why do you think many people think of polygamy when they hear the word mormon?

Richard Kitchen: „Good question! It’s a topic that society is very interested in. Sex, scandal. The newspapers … you never hear about the normal or what’s just every day. Even though it’s been more than a hundred years since the Mormons themselves have practiced Polygamy, but again it’s something that is catching and something you remember.“

Where does Mormon polygamy start in the 19th century?

Richard Kitchen: „Various scholars point to various years but it depends on your definition of start. If one person in a culture does something it’s an anomaly. If the culture does that that’s when you can say this is part of the culture. In the 1840s there are rumors that perhaps some of the Mormons are doing Polygamy. And this is actually one of the causes that led to the death of Joseph Smith.“

How did Polygamy get into Mormonism?

Richard Kitchen: „They basically point back to various times in the Old Testament. So … you look back at the ancient prophets, and say: ok Abraham obviously had two wives. The thinking I guess is … or the belief was that god has allowed this at various times, doesn’t allow it etc., and that this was one of those times that this was allowed. But certainly I believe that there are factors that allowed it to expand.“

How did Mormon Polygamy look like?

Richard Kitchen: „Historically only about 5% of Mormon males ever did any Polygamy. And most of those who did so had 2 wives. The one criteria that dealt with economics is that in order to be married to more than one spouse you had to be able to support that spouse. The very few people that had more than 2 wives almost all of those are what we would call economically the upper class. In order to participate in Polygamy the first wife had to approve and give agreement that you could do this and then she had to approve of the second wife. Many polygamist women actually wrote tracts defending the practice of Polygamy and … in a fact saying that it gave them more freedom. There are many cases where Polygamy didn’t work out. Unlike say in the Catholic church divorce was allowed.“

So when did Mormon Polygamy end?

Richard Kitchen: „From 1850 to 1890 at this 40year time span that is when it was practiced but increasing the tensions with the government. By 1890 the leadership of the church said that they had received a revelation from god that said, ok we no longer need to practice this because it is becoming such a block to the actual religion. Technically I guess the concept is still there but not in a physical earthly sense. Say you married a wife and you married her for eternity. Well eternity is a long time. And say she died and you married somebody else. In society that’s monogamy, right? But if you look at it as you’re married for eternity, then what?“

Fotos: copyright by Philipp Spreckels, Turn of the century photograph of Joseph F. Smith, his wives, and his children.