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Polygamy, practically speaking, and poetic doctrine

June 18, 2014

Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles delivered the first public address on polygamy or “plural wives” as he put it on August 29, 1852 in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. You can find the address in the Journal of Discourses, vol. 1. I like imagining this guy



speaking on plural marriage in, I presume, this place–the Bowery–because not even the Old Tabernacle had been built yet, much less the current one.

Salt Lake Bowery

(By the by, if you’re interested, you can see several cool photos of General Conference throughout history here.)

So, after reading the address I found Elder Pratt’s arguments to be not entirely convincing, but I found his premise extremely interesting. He frames the entire talk in terms of needing to show how polygamy is a legitimate element of Mormon theology so that it cannot be declared unconstitutional:

I believe that they will not, under our present form of government (I mean the government of the United States), try us for treason for believing and practicing our religious notions and ideas. I think, if I am not mistaken, that the constitution gives the privilege to all the inhabitants of this country, of the free exercise of their religious notions, and the freedom of their faith, and the practice of it. Then, if it can be proven to a demonstration, that the Latter-day Saints have actually embraced, as a part and portion of their religion, the doctrine of a plurality of wives, it is constitutional. And should there ever be laws enacted by this government to restrict them from the free exercise of this part of their religion, such laws must be unconstitutional.

Consequently, the majority of the discourse doesn’t deal directly with polygamy but with setting up a doctrinal argument in its favor. He goes into the pre-mortal world and the Abrahamic covenant and just how much posterity that would be. Being a scientist, Pratt calculates how many grains of sand are in a cubic foot and, by extension, cubic yards, etc. to illustrate the numbers implicated in Abraham’s promised posterity. Practically speaking, the argument goes, polygamy was a better way of addressing those numbers. One classmate pointed out that as Orson Pratt puts it, children are what God is all about. I think there’s some truth to that.

Anyway, that wasn’t the only thing we talked about. After a discussion of the recent news that the LDS Church will no longer manage adoptions, we actually started with a discussion of D&C 25 and then moved to Eliza R. Snow’s poem, “O My Father.” It’s known as such in LDS hymnals, but originally it was titled “Invocation to the Eternal Father and Mother.”

Eliza R. Snow

As far as we could tell, Ms. Snow’s poem is the only place that mentions a heavenly mother in what might be considered the LDS canon. Wilford Woodruff called the poem a revelation. Interesting because Eliza doesn’t indicate that she arrives at the conclusion of a heavenly mother via overt divine instruction, but instead she says, “Truth is reason, truth eternal tells me I’ve a mother there.” Truth is equated with reason and common sense. Enjoy the whole poem below. Claudia pointed us to the book, Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, ed. by Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson. And multiple times she urged us to write, suggesting that that is the primary reason we remember Eliza R. Snow today.

O my Father, thou that dwellest
In the high and glorious place,
When shall I regain thy presence
And again behold thy face?
In thy holy habitation,
Did my spirit once reside?
In my first primeval childhood
Was I nurtured near thy side?
For a wise and glorious purpose
Thou hast placed me here on earth
And withheld the recollection
Of my former friends and birth;
Yet ofttimes a secret something
Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
And I felt that I had wandered
From a more exalted sphere.
I had learned to call thee Father,
Thru thy Spirit from on high,
But, until the key of knowledge
Was restored, I knew not why.
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.


Today’s reading

D&C 25 (addressed to Emma Smith)

Eliza R. Snow, “O My Father”

Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage,” Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, no. 9

Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One, chapter 2



“When I was a teenager, the worst thing that could ever happen to you was to get pregnant. It kept generations of young girls chaste because there were no good options.” -Claudia

“If you will write, you will be better off. If you feel like writing poetry about the church, please do. Turns into doctrine.” -Claudia



Know what the “R” stands for in Eliza R. Snow? Roxcy. That’s right. I love it; it makes me think Eliza had swag.

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