I recently read The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men by Carol Lynn Pearson, and a couple of friends expressed interest and asked me to let them know what I thought of it. I'm not much of one for writing coherent reviews, but I will record some of my thoughts because this topic, and this book, are important.
In full disclosure: I do not believe polygamy is or ever was ordained, sanctioned, or commanded by God. It's taken me years to come to that conclusion, and I won't go into my reasons here (there are a great many). Carol Lynn Pearson shares this view, and this book is written through that lens. However, she never criticizes or condemns anyone, past or present, who may feel differently, and she treats historical figures (particularly Joseph Smith) with compassion and respect. This is not an angry book or an expose of the salacious details of polygamy, though you may feel angry or scandalized at times while reading it.
This is a book that explores how the practice of polygamy, while officially abandoned (but never repudiated) by the church over 100 years ago, still affects us today. Earthly polygamy may be a thing of the past in the LDS church, but eternal polygamy, or the understanding that in heaven, men will be able to have multiple wives, is very much part of our present. The influence of this harmful doctrine is seen in our sealing practices and church policies and felt in our marriage relationships.
The history of polygamy is complex and thorny, and the author dips into it only enough to give context to current practice. (If you are interested in learning in more detail about the history of polygamy, I highly recommend Lindsay Hansen Park's Year of Polygamy podcast--I'm nearly through it and have learned so much. It is incredibly well done.) Pearson's writing is smooth and lyrical, her voice calming and wise. At the end of each chapter, she shares dozens of collected experiences from anonymous, average Mormons about the ways the "ghost of eternal polygamy" has affected and is affecting their lives. The stories are all somewhat different, but they are all connected by threads of pain, of anger, of grief. After reading story after story after story they all run together, and it becomes impossible to assert that "polygamy was a long time ago and doesn't affect us anymore."
This book is for all Mormons: it's for those, like me, who have experienced grief or pain or bewilderment over polygamy, and it's also for those who aren't personally impacted by polygamy but would like to understand how it continues to shape our present culture and remains a very real issue for many of their fellow saints.
Pearson deftly weaves vivid stories with insightful compassion. She lays out a gentle but compelling case for why polygamy is harmful, offers rebuttals for common explanations and rationalizations for it, and, ultimately, presents a way the church can choose to be rid of it, once and for all. It's more than wishful thinking: she explains precedent for her conclusions and makes renouncing polygamy and moving "from patriarchy to partnership" seem not only perfectly rational and desirable, but also completely doable.
Before purchasing the book, I listened to this podcast interview in which Carol Lynn Pearson discusses and reads extended excerpts from it. Her words and her voice are powerful. At the end, she reads a couple pages from the end of her book that talk about her vision for our future: what life could be like if the church formally renounces polygamy for time and eternity. I listened to her as I ironed a pieced quilt top I'm making, an activity during which I feel close to my Mormon grandmothers and great-great-great grandmothers--including those who lived polygamy--and somewhere between the puffs of steam and the sliding sounds of the iron I became lost in Carol Lynn's vision and I melted into crumple faced sobs. The words were rich and strong and so hopeful, and I cried in hope and grief and desperate longing.
I left this comment on the page after I finished the podcast:
I left this comment on the page after I finished the podcast:
"I am, even still, even not believing that polygamy is God-ordained, haunted by this principle. I cannot see past it in the temple. If I were to die first, I would be happy to see my husband remarry…but not if it means he is sealed to another woman. We’ve talked about it, he understands, but my fear is still there. Polygamy and temple inequities between the sexes drive a wedge between me and God. I cannot hope to understand a God who forever subjugates women to men. I have always known I, as a woman, am just as capable/intelligent/valuable as any man, and to not see that reflected in our holiest spaces is devastating to me.
"I cried when Carol Lynn read the excerpt from the end of her book of her vision of what the future could be if we let go of the notion that polygamy is or ever was the will of God. I want to wrap my arms around her for expressing so beautifully the pain and the hope in my heart."
In conclusion, yes, you should read this book. It may create new wounds or uncover some you weren't aware you had, but the pain is productive, the way she tells the story is cathartic, and the resolution she proposes is healing balm.
Here is an excerpt that was particularly meaningful to me. The words are Carol Lynn's, but many of them have been sitting in my heart, unuttered, for a long time:
"When heaven has an earthquake you fall to your knees and feel through the rubble to find the pieces of God. When my eternal, temple-blessed marriage shattered and everything that had been meaningful lay in jumbled shards around me, I had to slowly and carefully pick up every single piece and examine it, turning it over and over, to see if it was worthy to keep and to use in building a new house of meaning. As I gathered the broken pieces of God, I used only my own authority, only my own relationship with the divine, and the good, small voice that speaks inside me, to appraise them. I threw away many, and I kept many, assembling the bright pieces into One Great Thought. I asked only, "Do I see God's fingerprints on this? Does this little piece feel godly? Does it speak of love?" That made it easy. I was forever finished with the insane attempt to love a God who hurts me. When I picked up the little piece of God-ordained polygamy, I smiled because there was no question. I thanked the God of Love, and I threw that piece away.
"My choice is not between either honoring our founding prophet or acknowledging that he made a significant error. I choose both. I can love King David for "The Lord is my shepherd..." even though this is the same man who arranged the death of Uriah after taking his wife Bathsheba in adultery. Quantum physics has proven light to be at once both wave and particle. Like David, Joseph was at once both a man of God and a man of earth, and he never claimed to be perfect.
"But this is the thing. No one today weeps in the night because in 1837 Joseph Smith made the monumental error of establishing the "Kirtland Safety Society," an underfunded bank that promised riches, failed within weeks, and caused financial ruin and loss of faith for a large number of his followers. Yet thousands and thousands, perhaps a number larger than we can even imagine--women and men in today's LDS Church--still live with sadness or fear, or anger and confusion, some weeping into the night because of the Ghost of Eternal Polygamy. Something went terribly wrong, and I believe that God insists, and insists very loudly, that we Latter-day Saints do everything we can to put it right. We will not leave the pain unattended. We are better than that.
"And now I wonder. Those who have lived very large lives, who have left legacies beyond their deaths--do they continue to feel both the positive and the negative effects those legacies have on those who are now taking their own turn on earth? None of us wants to be remembered for our errors. None of us wants to see hurt and know that it has come from our actions. I believe that seeing Joseph's polygamy as an error is the kindest way to evaluate it. And the surest way to correct it.
"Brother Joseph said that "Friendship" is a "grand fundamental principle of Mormonism." True friendship, I believe, is described in that lovely thought I have read more than once from writer Dina Craik, who lived in England during Joseph Smith's lifetime:
"'Oh, the comfort--the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person--having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.'
"I count myself as a friend to Brother Joseph, and I wish to honor him like this. I hold the fullness of his life in the palm of my hand, chaff and grain together. I keep the many kernels worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away."
- Carol Lynn Pearson, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy, pages 69-71