Thursday, July 13, 2017
There, but for the grace of . . .
A few months ago, a new family moved into a rental home up the street. For several weeks, all we would see were a couple of large pickup trucks, a large SUV, and a two or three large trailers, the type a contractor might own for hauling construction tools and supplies. During the daylight hours, from what I understand (since I’m not around), there’s not much sign of life at the house. I take the dog out for a walk in the evening, though, and now and then during the first few months I would see the vehicles pull up and park the trailers out in the street. Usually a man and a couple older boys would get out of the vehicles and go into the house through the garage. If I was later walking the dog, though, I noticed that there were never lights on in the house.
When they first moved in, it was colder, and the man and boys wore long-sleeved shirts. I didn’t think much of it. I wondered if they were part of a construction crew, and this was their base of operation, which might actually be the case, since I have seen them moving ladders and construction gear between trailers. But one day someone in the ward mentioned that the house had been rented by a polygamist family. A few of the puzzle pieces started to fall into place. As the weather has gotten warmer and the sunset later, I walk by some evenings when it’s still light. A couple of times I’ve seen some teenage girls and some younger boys and girls. The boys are still dressed in jeans and plain-colored, long-sleeved shirts, no matter how hot it is. And the girls all have the customary polygamist braid in their hair and wear plain-colored long dresses, also long-sleeved. I say hi when I walk by, and they respond in kind, but they don’t appear to want any conversation. I’m not really sure they even live in the house, since it appears to be empty most of the time. The next-door neighbor, who also recently moved in, knows a bit more than I do, and he doesn’t think they sleep there. He had no idea what sort of neighbors he was getting when he moved in. It’s a little odd, but then aren’t we all? I have no idea which polygamist clan they belong to, and I don’t think it would be polite to ask.
Personally, I have a strange relationship with polygamy. First, I wouldn’t be here without it. I am the descendant of a second wife on both sides of my genealogy. Thomas Sirls Terry was a pioneer. In fact, he came west in 1847, then served a mission to the eastern states and returned in 1857 to Salt Lake as a captain in one of the wagon companies. On the return trip, he had an interesting adventure. A young lady, Lucy Stevenson, became ill one night and died. Her father called for Thomas to administer to her. He and John Dustin, another of the captains, laid hands on her head and blessed her, twice. Nothing happened. So Thomas went to his wagon, fetched his temple clothes, and walked out into the prairie about a quarter mile. There he put on his temple clothes, knelt down in the darkness, and prayed until he felt that Lucy should live. In his words, “After I had returned I found Sister Lucy still dead, the family were all crying. I said to Brother Dustin, we will administer to her again. We placed our hands upon her head and I asked my Heavenly Father that her spirit might return to its body. Before we took our hands off her head her Spirit returned and she came to life. The time altogether was one hour. She came to the Valley and was married.”
That last bit is one heck of an understatement. Yes, she married. She married Thomas. She became his third wife. But it didn’t last. According to his version of the story, she liked to go dancing, but he didn’t dance, so she left him. Some thanks for raising her from the dead.
At any rate, she was wife number three. Previously, Thomas had married two daughters of Zera Pulsipher, the missionary who baptized Wilford Woodruff. I am descended from the younger of the two, Eliza Jane. Pat Holland (Patricia Terry Holland) is descended from the older sister, Mary Ann. Eliza Jane ended up being packed off to Nevada, probably to hide her during the Raid years. That’s where she died and where her grave still is. Thomas Sirls is buried in Enterprise, Utah, where my dad and Sister Holland grew up.
On my mom’s side is William Stimpson, a survivor of the Martin Handcart Company. He buried a son, not quite two years of age, at the crossing of the Platte River. He then buried his wife and a premature baby in a shallow grave near Fort Bridger. He and a four-year-old son somehow survived the ordeal, made it to the Valley, and settled in the Ogden area, where he married again, twice, the second time polygamously to my great-great-grandmother, Danish immigrant Ann Mary Christensen. I can’t imagine how hard his life must have been. He was illiterate, so he didn’t leave a record, but I am guessing, based on what I know, that polygamy was not easy for either William or Ann.
And that’s the other side of my relationship with polygamy. While I wouldn’t be here without it, I am not a big fan of the Principle. As with most things Mormon, I have read a good deal about it. I have also carefully considered the various rationales given to support its implementation. And for reasons I won’t go into here, let me just say that I am not a believer in polygamy. I think it was a mistake, much like the priesthood ban. But if I had lived in Nauvoo in the 1840s or Utah in the 1860s, what would I have done? My sensibilities are certainly shaped by modern American values and prejudices and by historical hindsight. I like to think I would have been sympathetic to men like William Law and William Marks, Church leaders who couldn’t find anything divine in plural marriage. But especially as a young man, I was rather blindly obedient (sometimes blindly disobedient), so I can’t say what I would have done.
Consequently, whenever I walk past the new neighbors and see them outside in their polygamist garb and hair styles, trying to keep to themselves, seeming for all the world lost between two worlds, I can’t help but think, “There, but for the grace of George F. Edmunds and John Randolph Tucker, go I.” I must admit I am grateful that the Senator from Vermont and the Congressman from Virginia crafted a piece of legislation so brutal (and perhaps so unconstitutional) that it finally caused the Church to give up on polygamy. And I’m grateful for the Smoot Senate hearings that forced the Second Manifesto and finally deep-sixed Mormon plural marriage forever. I guess I am not alone. A 2012 Pew Research poll turned up one surprising finding on Mormon moral beliefs: 86 percent of Mormons surveyed considered polygamy to be immoral, while only 79 percent said sex between unmarried adults was immoral. That’s rather incredible, if you think about it. Abortion came in at 74 percent.
It has been 130 years since Edmunds and Tucker, and the LDS Church is a far cry from the Church that their Act tried to dismantle. And I am glad. I am about as monogamous as a person can be. Even when I was dating, I didn’t like dating more than one person at a time. I just couldn’t get interested. Marrying more than one woman would be incredibly repugnant to me. So, thank you, Senator Edmunds and Congressman Tucker. You gave me the liberty to be an American, a monogamist, a full-fledged member of a modern society, with no pressure to be anything else. I don’t have to live in the shadows. I can walk the dog in my shorts and t-shirt, eat at restaurants, go to movies. I can be part of the twenty-first century without having to look over my shoulder. It’s something for me to be grateful for as we approach Pioneer Day. But Pioneer Day does carry some awkward overtones for me.
Last night while I was working on this post, my dad called. He is 92. He’d had a busy day. He drove the car in to the shop, then took the bus home. He worked in the yard a bit and noticed that the apricots were ripe, so he bottled eight quarts. He then drove a truckload of yard waste (from his yard and the neighbors’ yards) to the dump. On his way home, he said, he had gone by the cemetery and had a talk with my mom. He told her to put in a request for him to join her. It was four years to the day since she died. I can’t help but wonder if his great-grandfather, Thomas Sirls, ever had a chat like that. If so, which grave would he visit? Which one would he want to spend the hereafter with? Probably not Eliza Jane, since she’s the one who got shipped off to Nevada. I’m sure my dad’s happy he doesn’t have to think about that sort of question.