Brigham Young surrounded by his nineteen wives

From Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and finally to Great Salt Lake City, the Mormons were forced continually to move out of the way of persecution. Although much of this persecution seems to have been related to the Mormons' self-sufficient economy, the overt accusations from local populations were those of social and religious transgressions. The Mormons came to be known as immoral, clannish, possibly violent, and ultimately un-American, and with that, the local people of each area found a justification for the Saints' harrassment and removal.

The Mormons' most well-known and probably least understood practice that inflamed the moral ire of the nation was that of polygamy. Polygynous "sealings" were far less common than conventional wisdom would lead us to believe; further, many Mormons, including prominent leaders were repulsed by the practice. Some left the church altogether; others found that after meditation, they could accept polygamy. However, even Brigham Young, successor to Joseph Smith and a man who died with nineteen wives, remarked of polygamy that "it was the first time in my life that I desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time." Nevertheless, he clearly came to terms with the practice, and indeed embraced it.


Anti-Mormon cartoon depicting the presumed results of polygamy

The practice of plural marriage was officially instituted--albeit secretly--in a revelation that Joseph Smith recieved on July 12, 1843. The revelation was in keeping with the Mormon's program of restorationism; as moving west was a restoration of Edenic land to their proper caretakers, plural marriage restored the practice whereby the Lord had ordained concubines and wives for the original patriarchs--Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, and Moses. This provided some justification for the practice, as it allowed the Saints, theoretically, to "multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commmandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world." George Bernard Shaw, a non-Mormon unfamiliar with demographic distribution in frontier America, publically supported plural marriages among the Mormons; he asserted that such a practice would provide husbands for surplus women as well as rapidly populate the frontier. Unfortunately for Shaw's theory, women were actually in short supply on the frontier. A later historian, Lawrence Foster, provided the explanation that "Mormon polygamy was but one of numerous attempts in antebellum America to establish alternative family systems by millennial religious groups who had rejected existing marriage and family patterns, such as the Shakers and the Oneida Perfectionists." Of course, most non-Mormons at the time simply assumed that Joseph Smith and his secret Council of Fifty, those first initiated into the practice of polygamy, had stumbled on a way to allow themselves religously sanctioned adultery; those of the "lecher school," most famously Smith biographer Fawn Brodie, argue that although Smith loved his first wife Emma, "monogamy seemed to him an intolerably circumscribed way of life."

Mormon religious beliefs also caused strife between their communities and those of non- Mormon neighbors. Mormons believed that other religions had no authority to perform baptisms, marriages and the like. Further, Mormons came out against infant baptism, beleiving that infants had no sins to wash. Probably most difficult for non-Mormon Americans, however, were the Saints' views on disease and death. Despite cholera epidemics and widespread dibilitating disease among the Mormon population as they moved west, most believed that the Saints, particularly the first Prophet Smith, had extraordinary powers of healing. Further, they believed that some Mormons, as God's true people, could avoid death altogether through a sort of celestial immortality. However, the most unique teaching of the Mormon religion was the possiblity of salvation for the dead as well as the living. Therefore, all who missed the opportunity to hear the gospel in this life would hear it in the next. Finally, Mormons subscribed wholeheartedly to a premillenialist view of the world; eventually, Jesus would reappear and those who were saved (the Saints, notably) would be taken up into heaven and spared the agonies of mortal death. Further, with Smith's plural marriage revelation of 1843, he also revealed the "new and everlasting covenant" which allowed that marriages were eternal and that the family unit would survive fully intact in the afterlife. This was clearly an appealing concept in the free-for-all instability of the Jacksonian era; however, Smith's concept of family, especially an everlating polygamous family, was something that deeply offended the Protestant sensiblities of the time.

Thus, to the outsider, the immorality of Mormon practices was firmly established. Their beliefs flew in the face of the American concepts of family, marriage, religion and the afterlife. Although it clearly cannot be condoned, it is also hardly surprising that Mormon groups excited such violent response wherever they attempted to settle.