Confronting Polygamy from the Other Side

When my friend Marla told people in our 11th grade English class that she was Mormon, I assumed she must be in 2nd Ward. When she started passing out pamphlets with a picture of the Salt Lake temple titled “What Mormons Believe,” I was impressed with her gumption in taking opportunities to do missionary work. When I found out she grew up in Pinesdale, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and had a hard time looking her in the eye for a couple days.

My friendship with Marla, however, is now one that I treasure. I learned from her, and I grew in understanding and tolerance for a little-understood religious community. She was the first “insider” I had ever met, even though I was raised in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, not 15 miles from the Pinesdale community of the United Apostolic Brethren. The UAB, also known as the Allred group, are one of the more placid fundamentalist polygamist sects that identify themselves as Mormons. They keep mostly to themselves, but their presence has cropped up fairly often throughout my life. A couple of friendly Piney women (a term that is used mostly by local teenagers and primarily to denegrate) helped my mom clean the giant, inaccesible rafters of our log house when she decided she needed to hire some help to get the house on the market. I silently noted with fascination the glimpse of full-length garments peeking out from under their skirts. Former members of the Pinesdale community make up a good fraction of my home stake, but they have all had to interview with the First Presidency to get there. I had multiple friends at college at Montana State, towheaded Jessops and Allreds, who would attend institute, ward activities, and church meetings with a zeal for activity that tricked a good number of us into thinking they were baptized members. And, most recently, I found myself enrolled in Brother Rogers’s Preparing for Celestial Marriage class on Tuesday nights, where I sat next to Jeff. For the first time in my years’-long association with members of the Allred group, my conversations with Jeff have again begun to stir up my foundation of faith and rock that pit in my stomach that I thought I had intellectually overcome.

It was the day after a particularly turbulent Tuesday night class that I found myself at Missoula’s Book Exchange, gazing at used books I longed to own. I always like to head straight for their Religion section – breezing past the two aisles devoted to New Age and the aisle and a half of Buddhism, back to the corner beneath all of the books on Christianity where a little 3-foot stretch of shelf labeled “Other Religions” always nests a few choice books on LDS subjects. The two copies of Rough Stone Rolling are all that remain of the 5 they had in stock, and I note with satisfaction that that one stray copy of Under the Banner of Heaven is still there, untouched. I bought out their copies of Orson Scott Card’s Folk of the Fringe months ago, both the one here and the one that they had filed under Science Fiction. Most days there’s nothing new here, but sometimes someone sells back something fascinating, and I live for those finds. This day was one of those lucky days. I almost didn’t pick it up because the title was written very weakly and the cover design was banal. (Being a graphic designer by trade, I always judge a book by its cover.) Predators, Prey and Other Kinfolk, it read, and was subtitled Growing up in Polygamy. The author’s middle name – Dorothy Allred Solomon – jumped out at me and validated it enough to warrant a quick skim. I was still a little trepidatious; the last book I had picked up here on a whim was Terry Tempest Williams’s Leap and I had found it self-righteous in its agnosticism and boring. I wanted to read enough of Solomon’s book to find out if she was going to end up ranting about organized religion before I decided to buy it.

A quick five minutes in a chair in the middle of the bookstore turned into two hours. The story was engrossing; I made a mental note somewhere past the first chapter to pay for the book before I left. The timing is what made the book so compelling to me. Conversation from Eternal Marriage class the night before was interspersing itself with the paragraphs as I read.

Class had ended at 8:30, but Jeff had a few questions to ask, and it had turned into a group discussion that dragged into the night. A few days before, the news had hit of the raid on the FLDS ranch in Texas, and everyone had polygamy on the brain. I had fielded my share of questions from inquisitive friends and coworkers – quite a few after a local news anchor had erroneously reported that “The FLDS church shouldn’t be confused with the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who ended the practice of polygamy in 1980.” This was the first time in my life, however, that I found myself defending the Church’s stance on polygamy from the other side. For years, I’ve found comfort in Jacob 2.

27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;
28 For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.
29 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.
30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.

That wasn’t so convincing to Jeff. He countered with Doctrine and Covenants 132 and insisted that the Principle had been revealed and the Lord had commanded in order to raise up seed, and since this is the fulness of times it would never again be taken from the earth.

Solomon tells the story of her own polygamous upbringing, but also cites incidents from the journals of her ancestors. Her father, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers were polygamous, and their experiences spanned the grey years between the 1890 Manifesto, the 1904 “We Really Mean it This Time” Manifesto and the 1950’s raids that sent her own family into hiding. A particularly poignant story is told of her grandfather, living in the post-manifesto world of Star Valley, Wyoming, where plural marriage was still lived as an excusable technicality for years after it was squelched in Utah. He loved his wife Charlotte and had no aspirations to polygamy, but he saw a dream in which he and an unknown woman held hands and walked in a dry, southern land. He later met the very woman, Solomon’s grandmother Evelyn, face to face, and knew he was being inspired and directed to take a second wife. At the time, of course, entering into a second marriage was both illegal and forbidden, but they obtained permission to marry if they did so outside of the United States, in the Mormon colonies in Mexico. After prayerful consulatation with the two women, calling it off on several occasions on Charlotte’s objections and then re-committing at her insistence, the second marriage was performed outside of the auspices of US legal jurisdiction by none other than Mission President Anthony Ivins. I was troubled as I read their poignant story. Life did not get easier for the family – persecution and hardship followed them and the colonies provided a fringe existence fraught with peril and starvation. Charlotte passed away and Evelyn raised over a dozen children on her own. It seemed to me to be driven through tragedy but touched with the hand of the divine. How could I argue the legitimacy of their marriage, one that I would have self-righteously condemned as being “over the line” had I not known the specifics of their circumstances and the fact that they had the blessing of the First Presidency? How does one argue principles in the face of personal experience?

Jeff had spoken boldly as we conversed in class. I appreciated the respect he showed me and the other women in the room. He must have had inklings of the types of rumors that shadowed him around our Institute. “He just comes here to find a nice wife, doesn’t he?” one of my Relief Society friends once asked. He expressed the peculiar sentiment of the Allred group – the fact that they believe that President Monson is a prophet. Peculiar but convenient, these types of beliefs are what classify the UAB as a “group” and not a Church. Other splinter groups must confront the fact that as justified as they feel for preserving the Principle of Plural Marriage, they are not fulfilling other aspects of the restored gospel such as temple building and missionary work. The UAB accept the work being done by the mainstream Church – we have the manpower to carry out those important missions, but they posess the special commission to preserve the Principle until the time when the mainstream Church can accept it again. Curious. Interesting. Sympathetic. It is so easy to come to an understanding of their principles and I found myself entertaining the fear that even mainstream members like me might easily be swayed into apostate trains of thought like this, were the circumstances pressing.

Back in the bookstore, I realized that it was getting late. I payed for the book and walked home, reading as I went. I cooked my dinner, changed my clothes, got ready for bed, but couldn’t bring myself to sleep until I had finished it. I knew I’d regret it in the morning when the time came to wake up at 5:00 and prepare to teach my seminary lesson, but I stayed awake, wanting to discover the solution that Solomon herself came to. I wanted to know her answer – these are people she loved and grew up with, but she was painfully aware of the insidious flaws in their lifestyle. How would she resolve the conflict of faith?

The story of Solomon’s father, Rulon Allred, is complex and compelling, but I began to see the flaws in his choices and conduct that would cement Solomon’s, and my own, resolution. He was a charismatic and well-loved man. From a child’s perspective he was certainly the righteous zealot he claimed to be. But as I read of his decision to live polygamy, his break with the mainstream church, and the way he handled his first wife’s objections and censure from his church authority, I began to see the frightening error that underlies the benign intentions of Allred and his followers. Later stories of turmoil and abuse within the family, added only as an eplilogue to Solomon’s story, deepen the chasm and throw the murky question into clearer contrast.

I was grateful to have read the book. I don’t know if my personal experience with the Allred Group is what made it so compelling for me; I’d like to think that its appeal would extend to the average church member or anyone interested in the history of polygamy. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it – after some searching, I found that a later edition of the book had been retitled Daughter of the Saints, though I don’t know how available it is.

As a woman and an active LDS believer, this has been an issue that has troubled me for years. Recent events only serve to stir the waters and thrust it again into the limelight. But I think it is important that we all confront and come to our own resolutions about this troublesome doctrine. More importantly, and this is what Solomon’s book ultimately underscored for me, I find that the most comforting answer is found in the most basic of our doctrines: faith in a living prophet. Historically troubling incidents are bandied back and forth by scholars and critics, but you never have to argue a tentative document or purported account when you have the testimony and proof of true and living principles. The fact that we live a vibrant, optimistic religion that encourages us to seek our own confirmation, our own revelation from the source no matter how disturbing the questions, is immensely comforting and empowering in a climate where a contentious war of words can so easily pull so many under.

6 thoughts on “Confronting Polygamy from the Other Side”

  1. Interesting post. Makes one think. . .I wonder if I could get the book through ILL. I think you are right that we all have to come to terms with polygamy and its history.

  2. Once again, Anneke, your writing has drawn me in and related an uplifting and enlightening tale…and it’s a book review! What a great post.

  3. Very nicely put. It was interesting to hear your perspective about AUB associations in your life, and your experience in reading about one of the most influential figures in fundamentalist history. Having grown up in a Polygamous family/background (though non-AUB) and later joining the church at age 21, I have confronted, and still frequently confront, the complexities of the issue. There are many good and sincere people (albeit misled) within these organizations.

    It ultimately boils down to the subject of authority (which the Church has, and the “Groups” do not), something which becomes very self-evident when one studies the history of the fundamentalist groups.

    Anyway, I could go on ad-nauseam, but overall I just wanted to thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts.

  4. I know all-too-well that of which Anneke speaks. I went to the same public school as kids from Pinesdale (they probably made up anywhere from a third to a half of the school’s population). I played ball with them, rode the bus with them, performed in school plays with them, and on and on. My family’s farm was located in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains not a mile away from Pinesdale. A few of my very best friends in the world were and still are “Pineys.” In fact, my best friend in high school was an Allred. I open that chapter of my memory and see many faces. In doing so at this very moment, I find that my recollections are nothing short of fond.

    Yes, everyone must make their peace with the principle of polygamy, just like they must make peace with issues of sexuality, identity, finance, etc. I suppose my path was made much easier by seeing polygamy practiced with love and a sincere desire to achieve complete discipleship.

    So it is that when I recently read the dust jacket for Carolyn Jessop’s “Escape,” I had a slightly sinking feeling in my stomach. Once again, abuse gets to pass the buck on to polygamy. Baffling to me that in a society whose media idolizes virile men and praises them for sexual conquest, we have such a vitriolic reaction to a man willing to marry them.

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