I am currently reading “A Mormon Mother: The autobiography of Annie Clark Tanner.” My dissertation advisor had told me the story of Tanner’s experience with polygamy was “heartbreaking”, and indeed several moments in the text have invoked my sympathy for this remarkable woman. However, Tanner manages to convey her ordeals without indulging in self pity, and her memories never devolve into bitterness and resentment, even though such feelings would have been justified. Perhaps herein lies the power of this text: Tanner manages her difficult past with such dignity and honesty (but without didactic piety) that the reader feels he must supply the outrage on her behalf. At least that has been my experience so far. And—for those not familiar with this book—this is not a humble pioneer “my life on the prairie” diary. Tanner was an educated and eloquent woman whose combination of honesty and restraint should serve as a model to would-be present day Mormon memoirists.
It appears so far in my reading that much of her difficulties resulted from anti-polygamy crackdown of the Edmunds-Tucker Act. Once pregnant, she was forced to go “underground,” assuming a different name and being secreted to various homes until her baby was born. However, a lot of the pain underlying the text results from the indignities and loneliness that characterized so many polygamous experiences, independent of federal persecution. Tanner concedes that monogamous marriages have their problems as well, but that with plural marriage the degree of difficulty is multiplied by the number of wives.
I have never made my peace with polygamy, probably never will, and probably don’t really need to. However, in considering what an enormously dysfunctional program it appears to have been, I had a few thoughts—maybe not all that original—that I’ve been mulling. I wonder if one of the primary functions of polygamy was to make Mormonism irreconcilably weird. So weird that full assimilation into American society would never be possible. So weird that a candidate’s Mormonism (among other things) would prevent him from becoming president. In fact, if we want to imagine a Mormonism without polygamy in its history, we might look no further than the Community of Christ, who not only has denied Joseph Smith’s polygamy but continues to become less and less distinguishable from mainline American Protestantism as they back away, by degrees, from Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Polygamy got Joseph killed and put the Saints on the trail to the West, where a distinctive cultural identity could continue to develop until the early Twentieth Century. (I know I’m oversimplifying the history here, but I think my point still stands.)
On a more mystical level, I wonder if our history of polygamy continues to shape our collective Mormon consciousness in ways we don’t quite understand. For example, perhaps because it defies simple explanation, polygamy provides a check to existing tendencies to view morality in purely black and white terms. (Like Nephi killing Laban, polygamy can stop a pious person in his or her tracks and provoke some hard questions.) Was polygamy a necessary ingredient in a larger recipe for the creation of a distinctive and peculiar people? When taken in isolation, this ingredient might be too bitter to swallow. But when combined with the whole, maybe it’s indispensable.
I don’t mean to propose this as a great and final explanation. Just some thought’s I’ve had as I read “A Mormon Mother.” I don’t think we’ll ever quite get it in this life. In the meantime, however, I think it’s worth honoring the stories of individuals like Annie Clark Tanner whose sacrifice and endurance in often frustrating and lonely marriages have helped shape our culture in ways we cannot fully appreciate.