Primary sources/Brigham Young/8 October 1861 discourse on plural marriage

Table of Contents

Notes on Brigham Young's Unpublished Sermon of 8 October 1861


Introduction

This sermon[1] is often referred to in discussions of plural marriage. However, many are unaware that it comes in two versions. The versions are not identical, and contain some significant caveats. Interestingly, the less reliable version seems to have been quoted more often in published discussions of LDS plural marriage.

References

The two versions are:

  1. Conference Reports, October 8, 1861 (reported by George D. Watt)
  2. Also found in the Journal of James Beck, October 8, 1861.

Beck Diary

(This is a complete transcript of Beck's account.)

Conference mett in the Tabernacle Bro. W.W. Phelps said Joseph Smith said that Eve had 28 sons & 28 daughters & that Adam had many wives. Bro Brigham than got into the stand & stated the same thing. He then gave some instructions in relation to sealing He said that there were many men & women who after having been sealed to each other for time & all eternity came to him for a Bill of Divorce & for the sum of 10 dollars he gave them a Bill because the Lord permitted it but it was of no use to them they might just as well tear off a peice of their shirt tail or have a peice of blank paper for a divorce. But on account of the hardness of their hearts the Lord permitted it as it was in the days of Moses. But there was a way in which a woman could leave a man lawfully. When a woman becomes alienated in her feelings & affections from her husband it is then his duty to give her a Bill & set her free which would be fornication for the man to cohabit with his wife after she had thus become alienated from him. The children begotten of such a woman would be bastards in the true scriptural term of the word fornication for the crime of adultery a woman (& also men) would be stoned to death & then come up in the morning of the resurrection & claim all of her rights & priviledges in the marriage covenant. Also there was another way in which a woman could leave a man if the woman preferred another man higher in authority & he is willing to take her & her husband gives her up there is no Bill of divorce required in the case it is right in the sight of God. But if he ever after has any connexion with her, he is then guilty of committing a very great sin & will be punished accordingly. If a man is faithfull & should his wife leave him & be married to another without his consent there is no power in heaven or on earth that can prevent him from claiming her in the resurrection.

Annotation

Note that Beck has an annotation on the opening page of this entry. It is written perpendicular to the main text, in a different ink color and right over the diary entry itself:

"I do not vouch for the correctness of this by any means as my experience is that the memory of man is treacherous. – JA Beck"

George D. Watt version (selections)

"...I will give you a few words of doctrine upon which there has been much inquiry and with regard to which considerable ignorance exists. Br. Watt will write it, but it is not my intention to have it published, therefore pay good attention and store it up in your memories."

Brigham noted that he was “suffered to give bills of divorcement unto you because of your blindness, ignorance and hardness of heart.”

"How can a woman be made free from a man to whom she has been sealed for time and all eternity? There are two ways. All the elders in Israel will not magnify their priesthood, that are now in the habit of taking women, not caring how they get them. …if a man magnifies his priesthood, observing faithfully his covenants to the end of his life, all the wives and children sealed to him, all the blessings and honors promised to him in his ordinations and sealing blessings are immutably and eternally fixed; no power can wrench them from his possession. You may inquire, in case a wife becomes disaffected with her husband, her affections lost, she becomes alienated from him and wishes to be the wife of another, can she not leave him? I know of no law in heaven or on earth by which she can be made free while her husband remains faithful and magnifies his priesthood before God and he is not disposed to put her away, she having done nothing worthy of being put away. If that disaffected wife could behold the transcendent beauty of person, the godlike qualities of the resurrected husband she now despises, her love for him would be unbounded and unutterable. Instead of despising him she would feel like worshipping him, he is so holy, so pure, so perfect and so filled with God in his resurrected body. There will be no disaffection of this kind in the resurrection of the just. The faithful elders have then provided themselves worthy of their wives, and are prepared to be crowned gods, to be filled with all the attributes of the gods that dwell in eternity. Could disaffected ones see visions, even of the future glorified state of their husbands, love for them would immediately spring up within you and no circumstance could prevail upon you to forsake them."

"The second way in which a wife can be separated from her husband while he continues to be faithful to his God and his priesthood I have not revealed except to a few persons in this church, and a few have received it from Joseph the Prophet as well as myself. If a woman can find a man holding the keys of the priesthood with higher power and authority than her husband, and he is disposed to take her, he can do so, otherwise she has got to remain where she is. In either of these ways of separation you can discover there is no need for a bill of divorcement. To recapitulate: First, a man forfeits his covenant with a wife or wives, becoming unfaithful to his God and his priesthood—that wife or wives are free from him without a bill of divorcement. Second, if a woman claims protection at the hands of a man possessing more power in the priesthood and higher keys, if he is disposed to rescue her and has obtained the consent of her husband to make her his wife, he can do so without a bill of divorcement. If after she has left her husband and is sealed to another she shall again cohabit with him, it is illicit intercourse and extremely sinful...."

Uses of the quotes

Source Discussion

Eugene E. Campbell and Bruce L. Campbell, "Divorce among Mormon Polygamists: Extent and Explanations," Utah Historical Quarterly 46/1 (Winter 1978): 18–19.

Cites Conference Reports, October 8, 1861 (reported by George D. Watt. Also found in the Journal of James Beck), October 8, 1861. Text cited is:

But there was a way in which a woman could leave a man lawfully—when a woman becomes alienated in her feelings and affections from her husband, it is his duty to give her a bill and set her free—it would be fornication for a man to cohabit with his wife after she had thus become alienated from him.... Also, there was another way in which a woman could leave a man-if the woman preferred a man higher in authority and he is willing to take her and her husband gives her up. There is no bill [p.20] of divorce required, in [this] case it is right in the sight of God....

So, though the Watt version is cited as the main source, with reference to the material "also found" in Beck's journal, the actual text is from the Beck version, not the Watt version! No mention of the Beck caveat is given. One wonders if this was the source used by subsequent authors, who did not check the original for themselves?

Above essay reprinted in D. Michael Quinn (editor), The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Signature Books, 1992), 181-198.

Cite both in footnotes, but quote from Beck journal.

Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 45, 92-93.

Cites “Beck Notebooks” (twice!)

Van Wagoner, “Mormon Polyandry in Nauvoo,” Dialogue 18/3 (Fall 1985): 80.

Text quoted is from the Beck diary, but does not give a citation other than “8 October 1861 General Conference.”

Melodie Moench Charles, “The Need for a New Mormon Heaven,” Dialogue 21/3 (Fall 1988): 81-82.

Quotes text from the Beck diary, gives no citation at all.

George D. Smith, “Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 1841-46: A Preliminary Demographic Report,” Dialogue 27/1 (Spring 1994): 10.

Uses the Beck diary language, gives no citation at all, and merely assumes that this is how the matter is seen.

Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 162.

Cites the Beck version; see below.

Lawrence Foster, "Polygamy and the Frontier: Mormon Women in Early Utah," Utah Historical Quarterly 50/3 (Summer 1982): 285

Foster writes:

[Brigham Young] "said that if a woman became alienated in her feelings and affections from her husband, then it was his duty to give her a bill of divorce and set her free. Men must not have sexual relations with their wives when they were thus alienated. Children born of such alienated unions were properly seen as "bastards," not the product of a full marriage relationship."

This is essentially a reworking of material published above from his dissertation. The Beck journal is cited, Actual references is "A summary of Brigham Young's speech of October 8, 1861, is found in the entry for that date in James Beck's Notebook I, 1859-1865, LDS Archives. The original speech, recorded stenographically by G. D. Watt, is in LDS Archives and has been reproduced in an unauthorized transcription in Dennis R. Short, For (Wo)Men Only: The Lord's Law of Obedience (Salt Lake City: Dennis R. Short, 1977), pp. 85-90." [289n35]

Todd Compton, “A Trajectory of Plurality: An Overview of Joseph Smith’s Thirty-Three Plural Wives,” Dialogue 29/2 (Summer 1996): 24-25.

Unlike most, Compton actually notes and quotes from both versions! Bases his commentary on the Beck journal. He cites Beck from Foster, so it doesn’t appear that he’s looked at the original himself?

Compton's passage:

Another relevant doctrinal statement comes from an 1861 speech by Brigham Young, which is preserved in two versions:
Also there was another way—in which a woman could leave [a] man—if the woman Preferred—another man higher in authority & he is willing to take her. & her husband gives her up—there is no Bill of divorce required in the case it is right in the sight of God. [68]
The Second Way in which a wife can be seperated from her husband, while he continues to be faithful to his God and his preisthood, I have not revealed, except to a few persons in this Church; and a few have received it from Joseph the prophet as well as myself. If a woman can find a man holding the keys of the preisthood with higher power and authority than her husband, and he is disposed to take her he can do so, otherwise she has got to remain where she is . . . there is no need for a bill of divorcement . . . To recapitulate. First if a man forfiets his covenants with a wife, or wives, becoming unfaithful to his God, and his preisthood, that wife or wives are free from him without a bill of divorcement. Second. If a woman claimes protection at the hands of a man, possessing more power in the preisthood and higher keys, if he is disposed to rescue her and has obtained the consent of her husband to make her his wife he can do so without a bill of divorcement. "
This statement gives two options: (1) if a man apostatizes from the church, his wife can leave him without a formal divorce; [70] (2) if a woman desires to be married to a man with greater priesthood authority than her current husband has, and if both men agree, she may be sealed to the second man without formal divorce. Brigham reports that he learned this from Joseph Smith. [71] In some ways, this principle applies to Joseph's polyandrous marriages. He clearly was regarded as having more priesthood authority than any other living man, so he would be the most authoritative, spiritually desirable, second husband available.

Compton's footnotes

[68] Footnote 68: James Beck Notebooks, 1859-65, Vol. 1, 8 Oct. 1861, LDS archives; as quoted in Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 162. Cf. Frederick Kessler diary, S Oct. 1861, Marriott library. [NB: This is from New Mormon Studies CD ROM, and the "S" in the Kessler diary is present in the CD-ROM version. Suspect "8" in original.]
[69] Footnote 69: "A Few Words on Doctrine," speech at Tabernacle by Brigham Young, 8 Oct. 1861, Brigham Young addresses, recorded by George Watts, LDS archives. Published in For WoMen Only, ed. Dennis Short (Salt Lake City: Short. 1977). Cf. Campbell and Campbell, "Divorce Among Mormon Polygamists,” in Quinn, New Mormon History, 195.
[70] Footnote 70: This happened to John Hyde in the mid-1850s; he left the Mormon church and his wife was immediately divorced from him. Heber Kimball, in Journal of Discourses 4:165, said: "the limb she was connected to was cut off, and she must again be grafted into the tree, if she wishes to be saved"; cf. Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 162.
[71] Footnote 71: A Utah example: Hannah Grover left her husband, Thomas Grover, because he was not prominent in the church, though a faithful member. Then she was sealed to Daniel Wells, a member of the First Presidency; see Campbell and Campbell, "Divorce Among Mormon Polygamists,” 194.]

Commentary

  1. Point #1 is from Watt, ignoring Beck. Compton does not mention granting a legitimate divorce for alienation from a faithful elder.
  2. Point #2 is wholly from Beck. Watt speaks about “saving” and “rescuing” the woman, and nothing about “preferring” or “desires.”

George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage," (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2008), 78.

Uses the Watt version, though not cited as such. However, G.D. Smith omits any mention of Brigham's introductory remarks indicating that no faithful husband can have another "take" his wives from him:

"Brigham explained that 'if a woman can find a man holding the keys of the priesthood with higher power and authority than her husband, and he is disposed to take her, he can do so, otherwise she has got to remain where she is. In either of these ways of sep[a]ration, you can discover, there is no need for a bill of divorcement."

Answer


We should not hang too much of our interpretation of how the Saints saw these issues on an account that is later than Watt, and noted by its author to be at risk for inaccuracy.

Furthermore, it may be that at least some saints understood the matters as Beck explained them, but this does not mean this is what Brigham taught.

None of the available scholarship seems to have quoted the cautionary annotation by Beck, when he is cited. Yet, Beck's account has been the predominant source used.

Notes

  1. Text transcribed from originals by Allen L. Wyatt, "Zina and Her Men," (First Draft, 29 March 2006). Selection and commentary prepared by Gregory L. Smith (17 July 2007; last revised 16 December 2008). (C) 2008 FAIR—not for publication or reproduction.