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Celestial Polygamy is Inevitable

By: David G. - April 03, 2008

At least that’s the message that early twentieth-century Mormon author Nephi Anderson was trying to send in his short story “The Inevitable,” published in the Improvement Era in 1907. I think it is significant that Anderson wrote this story after the death of his first wife, Asenath Tillotson in 1904, and just before his second marriage to Maud Rebecca Symons in 1908. Questions of his marital status with his first wife and a potential second wife in the hereafter were likely on his mind.

Given the recent discussions around the ‘nacle concerning celestial polygamy, I thought I’d post this here so we can get some feel for the emergence of this idea in Mormon thought in the post-1890 era. It’s a bit long, but it’s a short story, so it should be a quick read for the curious.

 Nephi Anderson, “The Inevitable,” Improvement Era 10, no. 10 (August 1907):

The blinds were drawn, a fire blazed in the grate, and the ground-glass electric globes mellowed the light on the reading table. Bert Archer sat on one side of the table reading. His wife’s easy chair stood on the other side, in the cosy corner between the fireplace and the book case. The chair was still unoccupied, but the subdued noises of work being finished in the next room soon ceased, and Lucy Archer came in. She took a book from the top of the case, and then seated herself. She did not begin to read, however, but placed the unopened book on the table. She then leaned forward in her chair and gazed steadily into the fire.

“Are you through for today, my dear?” he asked, as he lowered his book.

“Yes, thank goodness,” she replied.

She continued to look into the fire. He glanced at the book which she had placed on the table, and then went on with his reading. Presently she straightened in the chair, picked up her book, and turning to her husband, said:

“Bert, you are a sly one. You placed this book on my work table this morning before you went to work, thinking, of course, that I would pick it up and read it.”

“Yes, that’s true,” he replied, as he looked at the fire instead of at her. “I hope you have been reading it.”

“Well, I did look into it, just for a few minutes, for I really haven’t time to read such stuff. But, look here, Bert, it’s no use your trying to make a ‘Mormon’ out of me.”

“Why, dear,” said he, turning to her, “I do not wish to make a ‘Mormon’ out of you; but I should very much like the Lord to make you a Latter-day Saint.”

“Well, I shan’t and won’t be a ‘Mormon!’ ” she exclaimed, rather jerkily, as if it were hard to say. “I don’t believe in your doctrine. If you will speculate in religion, I can’t see why old Parson Brown’s wasn’t good enough. It’s been good enough for your family and for mine for a good many generations.”

“How far did you get in your reading?” he asked, ignoring the oft-disputed point which she had brought up.

“Ah, just a few pages-to where it speaks of marriage for eternity, and there I closed the book.”

“Why did you quit there? Isn’t that an interesting subject?”

“Well, I had read that before-but, Bert, doesn’t the Bible say that in heaven there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage?”

“I object to your quoting scripture to prove any argument you wish to make, because you yourself do not believe in it.”

“Now, Bert, you go too far. I’ve never said that I am such an unbeliever as you would make me out to be.”

“I am glad to know it, dear. I wish you would believe more. Someone has said that an unbelieving woman is like a beautiful flower that has lost its fragrance.”

“Thank you. You do flatter me.” She turned her face again to the fire, leaning her head on her hand. He turned over the pages of his book, but finding the chapter he was reading too long to finish hurriedly, he closed the book.

“Lucy,” he asked “why do you object to the doctrine of marriage for eternity? Doesn’t it appeal to you as something to be desired very much? For my part, I think it is one of the most beautiful and desirable hopes-that of a continuation into eternity of that love which binds together man and wife in this world. Lucy, as I have told you so often, I want you to be my wife always-as long as we two shall exist and can know each other, so long do I want to call you wife. You cannot object to that?”

“No-but-” She turned again, placed her elbows on the table, rested her chin on the palms of her hands, and looked straight at her husband.

“But what?” asked he.

She did not reply. He also looked across the table, and he could see in the face turned towards him, traces of a struggle. Ever since he had received the gospel, now two years ago, he had been prayerfully watching and waiting for some awakening in his wife to a realization of the truth which he had, and which meant so much to him-to them both, if she were only willing.

“Bert, I want you to believe me, that lately I have been trying to look in your direction, to see and feel as you do. You may think that I am wilfully obstinate, but I am not.”

“No, dear, I have never thought that.”

“I don’t understand ‘Mormonism,’ ” she continued, “and I can’t believe what I do not understand. And especially the marriage part of your religion-there are some things in it that I can’t and won’t believe.”

“What particular part, for instance?”

“Polygamy.”

He did not laugh at her, but it was a big, broad smile which she saw across the table.

“As far as we are concerned here and now,” he said, “that is a matter scarcely worth debating. Wherever or whenever we see that ‘article’ we may be sure that it is contraband. You need not worry about polygamy, my dear. Let us get down to the first principles.”

“No; I am going to stay with the ‘higher principles,’ as you call them. Faith, repentance and baptism may be well enough, but what about plural marriage and these other things?”

“Well, what about them, dear?”

She did not reply, but she leaned forward and adjusted the coal in the grate. He wondered at the strange mood she was in tonight. When she sat up again she did not look at him, but at the picture of a sweet-faced woman hanging on the wall above him. After a few moments, her eyes still fixed on the picture, she said:

“She must have been a beautiful girl. Was she?”

“I think so; and as good as she was beautiful.

“She had never heard of ‘Mormonism,’ had she?”

“No; she died six months before the ‘Mormon’ elders came to our town.”

“Had she lived, do you think she would have become a ‘Mormon?.”

“I have no doubt about it. Our religious views were much alike, and we often discussed principles which later I learned were gospel truths.”

“Did you ever discuss the marriage question with her?”

“Do husband and wife ever talk of marriage? Well, now-”

“I mean from the ‘Mormon’ viewpoint, of course, that of marriage for eternity.”

“Yes; although we did not have much light on the question, we having been taught from childhood that the marriage relations entered into here were only binding until death did us part. It seemed to us that there was something wrong, but we could not locate it. If we are eternal beings, we reasoned, and have an eternal principle, why should not love continue as long as there is existence. And then, again, what God does should be eternal, and we believed that when Parson Brown married us-as he married you and me-and said, ‘What God hath joined, let no man put asunder,’ we believed he had the authority which he claimed. But I’ll admit that we were somewhat at sea on these matters.”

“Now, Bert; tell me this: you believe that the true marriage state exists eternally. You loved your first wife as much-well as much as you say you love me. You will want her in the next world as much as you say you want me.” She looked fixedly at him across the table.

“True, dear, true, but-”

“Don’t you think, Bert, that I can see the inevitable result of this marriage system? Yes; I am not so dull, or so blind.-All you need to do is to be sealed to your first wife for eternity, and then marry me for time and eternity in your temple, and there you have it.”

Bert did not reply.

“You will then two wives at the same time,” she said.

“Your reasoning is absolutely correct,” he replied.

“I don’t believe it,” she exclaimed, so emphatically that her tones were almost fierce.

“Very well, dear,” he replied quietly, “you need not believe it. Believe rather that when these earthly bodies of ours die, that that is the end of existence, and consequently of all life, love, with all that these terms mean. If that be true, then neither she who is gone before, nor you, nor I will ever meet to know and to marry each other. Believe, if you will that the sod on our graves covers and completely obliterates all the good, the true and the beautiful that ever existed in our hearts and lives here-believe all this if you will or can; but as for me-”

“Bert, you know I don’t believe that. I am neither a heathen nor an infidel. There must be some future state of the soul, of course, but what that is-that has been bothering me.”

“Granted, then, that there is a future state, we shall say, in heaven-we will not consider any other region. Now, answer in your own heart, and choose from these two conditions: First, the one generally conceived of by the religious world-that is, that we shall all live in a sort of evened up world where our individual likes, inclinations, desires and capabilities will not be permitted to operate: where everyone will love everyone else identically the same, both as to quality and kind. Contrast this with that condition which continues to every man and every woman the Godlike attributes and capabilities which either have a beginning or a development here, where the terms husband, wife, parent, child, will carry with them the same holy meaning which they do here, accentuated and purified, of course, by the glory of immortality. Which of these appeals to you? As for me, you know my expectations. I want to call you wife always, for time increases true love rather than diminishes it.”

“And of course you feel the same towards your first wife as you do towards me,” she added.

“Certainly.”

“And you would make her also a wife for eternity?”

“Yes; I have already done so.”

“What!”

“The sealing ordinance has already been attended to which makes her mine for eternity-mine, if I can live worthy of her.”

“O Bert! why did you not-why-?”

She leaned back in her chair, covered her face with her hands, and struggled hard to keep down the sobs.

He arose and went around to her chair. “Dear,” he said, as he took her cheeks in his hands, “I dared not wait longer. I would have given the world to have had you with me, but after that last talk we had about the matter I nearly gave up in despair about you, and so I went and had the ordinance attended to.”

There was a painful pause. The fire smouldered low in the grate. The night noises from the outside world had become fewer and now the evening was still.

“Lucy, why should you care?” he asked, not harshly. “Why should any one care who believes that there is no marriage for eternity? If there are no wives, Lucy, in the next world, what would it matter if a dozen dead women were sealed to me?”

She took his hands from her face and leaned forward out of his reach. Her sobs ceased, but she did not reply to his enquiries.

“To me,” he said in an endeavor to help her, “there are three thinkable things regarding the future life: utter annihilation and oblivion; the dead-level, purposeless heaven of the sectarian; the exalted, glorified, progressive life eternal in the celestial kingdom of God. This last is attained only through ceaseless self-sacrificing effort; and yet who can hesitate to choose from among them?”

She did not reply; and presently he went back to his chair, and took up his neglected book. He opened it, but he looked over the top edge at the troubled face bathed in the red firelight. His heart went out to her; but what else could he have done? How could he have spared her? No; the truth in this matter must be known and considered. There are some things which cannot be put away forever; sometime, somewhere they must be met. For a long time she sat still and quiet, looking or turning neither to the right nor to the left. The beautifully formed lines of her face stood in clear profile against the fire glow, and he studied the changing expressions on it, not now from behind the protection of a book, but openly. After a time he saw some hard lines soften, and then the eyes become moist again, this time, he was sure, not from anger or resentment.

Then she arose and went softly to him, seating herself on the cushioned arm of his chair. He drew her close.

“Bert,” she said, with a tremor in her voice, “I want you to forgive me. Sh-wait, let me talk now. I was going to ask you once more that foolish question, ‘Do you love me?’ Your daily life tells me you do, and I am silly for asking it so often. * * * And, dear, I love you, too; I haven’t told you that so often as you have said it to me. You may think that I am irritable and unreasonable, and all that, but, believe me, it is because of my-my selfish love for you * * * I have been doing some reading lately in your books. I have been studying, too, and thinking, ah, so hard, trying to solve the riddle of what will become of us three-you and me and her,” pointing to the picture, “and whichever way I turn I always come at last to the inevitable result, that we three must be together. I have told you that I did not believe, but that has always been the utterances of the rebellious part of myself; for, dear, no woman that loves a man as I love you can say in her heart that she does not desire that relationship to exist forever.” The tremor in her voice was gone. “Yes; I can see it now,” she continued, “the inevitable-and I must prepare to meet it bravely.”

There was a pause, and then he said:

“Lucy, there is no such thing as the inevitable. There are always two roads from which to choose.”

“Hush, or I will think you wish to get rid of me. No; there is but one way for me. I cannot bear to think of existence either in this world or any other apart from you. Where you go, I will go, if I may. If I must choose, it will be to the path which leads to the inevitable. * * * And, Bert, that doesn’t now seem so hard as before. But I know so little, I am so weak. I have so little faith. I want to believe, and I am just beginning.”

“And God bless and nourish that beginning,” said he, as he kissed gently and reverently a face made bright by glowing eyes.

No, I haven’t done extensive research into this topic and I don’t know how typical Anderson’s short story is of the period. But I do think it is telling that this message was being sent not by a GA in conference but by an author of fiction. I think that this is a good example of fiction being a powerful instrument in conveying ideas.



25 Comments

  1. Awesome. Wicked awesome.

    Comment by Steve Evans — April 3, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  2. Fascinating stuff, David. I agree that it’s quite interesting to see this coming from an author of fiction. I find this particular mode of discourse–negotiating their polygamous past by hanging on to a belief in celestial polygamy–particularly interesting because of the middle ground it carves out between fundamentalist Mormonism and rejecting plural marriage altogether and because of its enduring legacy in the minds of Latter-day Saints to the present.

    Comment by Christopher — April 3, 2008 @ 11:36 am

  3. Great story, David. I have read several short stories by Anderson, and this is quite typical to his theology as expressed int them.
    Great find.

    Comment by Ben — April 3, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  4. This terrible writing. I love it!

    Great line: “I wish you would believe more. Someone has said that an unbelieving woman is like a beautiful flower that has lost its fragrance.”

    It doesn’t add up though. His wife died 6 months before the Mormons came and converted and he still chose to marry a non-believer? (I assume he took longer than 6 mos to grieve his first wife) Is he gonna make his current wife be proxy for his first wife in the temple? That would be wicked awesome.

    Comment by amri — April 3, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  5. “I wish you would believe more. Someone has said that an unbelieving woman is like a beautiful flower that has lost its fragrance.”

    Guuuhrhrhrh

    “Someone has said” is one of my biggest pet peeves. You can’t establish ethos from nothing, especially when the quote that “someone” supposedly said is such a bland or vague platitude. I’d like to punch “someone” in the gut.

    Comment by BHodges — April 3, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

  6. It’s interesting that he asks her which after-life scenario is most appealing to her – as if whichever one sounds best must be the truth.

    Comment by SingleSpeed — April 3, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  7. 5: “Someone has said” is one of my biggest pet peeves. You can’t establish ethos from nothing, especially when the quote that “someone” supposedly said is such a bland or vague platitude.

    I don’t see how this is establishing ethos from nothing. The weakness of “someone has said” is that you feel too embarrassed identify yourself as the source of a supposedly wise or pithy-sounding phrase and so you try to add authoritative time and weight to the phrase by pawning it off on some ambiguous source that you now “conveniently” cannot identify. An authoritative source (a sacred text, religious leader, philosopher, etc) may add weight to a phrase but it doesn’t by itself establish or deny ethos. The phrase itself can be ethically considered without reference to its source.

    Comment by Jacob — April 3, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  8. Thanks for publishing that David, I think it makes my point from earlier. (another thread in my own blog)

    Celestial Polygamy may, or may not, be practiced but I firmly believe that it is still a practical belief amongst many, no matter what President Hinckley “said” to Larry King. (He also said we are not to drink coke or pepsi too to old Larry)

    Comment by JonW — April 3, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  9. My natural (feminist) train of thought replaced the genders after I finished. Would this story, now of polyandry, been published? Isn’t the argument still the same? Fascinating, Dave, as always.

    Comment by EmWJ — April 3, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

  10. Actually EmWJ many have argued that if such things entail polygamy (actually polygyny) they also entail polyandry.

    Comment by Clark — April 3, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  11. It’s interesting that he asks her which after-life scenario is most appealing to her – as if whichever one sounds best must be the truth.

    HA HA HA. Totally. I hate when people try to justify belief in that way.

    Comment by SAP — April 3, 2008 @ 11:23 pm

  12. But isn’t a lot of Mormonism about exactly those kind of witnesses?

    Comment by Seth R. — April 4, 2008 @ 12:50 am

  13. Well, I don’t think that doctrinally it’s supposed to be that way. It’s supposed to be about study, prayer, and pondering. Though I guess it’s true that “liking” the idea of the church would make a person more willing to put in the effort to obtain a spiritual witness.

    Comment by SAP — April 4, 2008 @ 8:18 am

  14. Oooh. So deliciously horrible. You need to get some of the Feminist Mormon Housewife crowd over to comment on this one.

    “But I know so little, I am so weak”

    (Fascinating womanhood.)

    “When she sat up again she did not look at him, but at the picture of a sweet-faced woman hanging on the wall above him”

    (Boy, if I married a widower, he’d have to keep the portrait of his first wife in an album somewhere…)

    “She leaned back in her chair, covered her face with her hands, and struggled hard to keep down the sobs.”

    (Tears can sway any argument. But he will be firm. You know he will.)

    “‘To me,’ he said in an endeavor to help her, ‘there are three thinkable things regarding the future life: utter annihilation and oblivion; the dead-level, purposeless heaven of the sectarian; the exalted, glorified, progressive life eternal in the celestial kingdom of God…”

    (She has to be spoon-fed anything that requires thought. Okay; I’ll grant that the woman in this piece may be mentally retarded, but really. Did you notice that she speaks almost entirely in one and two syllable words? Ol’ Bert gets to say all the three-, four- and five-syllable words.)

    Thanks for posting this. It was good for some giggles.

    Comment by Researcher — April 4, 2008 @ 8:45 am

  15. Researcher: Thanks for the substantive analysis. I agree that there is some great fodder for a gender analysis here. I’m not sure how I can “get” the FMH ladies to come over (we haven’t had much success since we founded this blog).

    Comment by David G. — April 4, 2008 @ 9:46 am

  16. I wish my wife responded better to long, dry, Socratic monologues.

    Comment by Seth R. — April 4, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  17. Kinda makes you wonder what of our contemporary gender discourse will look utterly ridiculous in another hundred years….

    Comment by Eve — April 4, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  18. Read Anderson’s Added Upon for a much longer treatment of this subject. I think I read it a dozen times when I was a teen. It was kind of like an early “Saturday’s Warriors” sprinkled with a little eternal polygamy.

    Comment by Jami — April 4, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

  19. #17 – Good point, Eve. It’s easy to laugh at those rubes from the past, but it’s much harder to see how laughable we often are.

    Comment by Ray — April 4, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

  20. Jami (#18): You should know that Added Upon was Anderson’s first and one of his worst novels. Richard Craecroft suggests that Dorian is his best.

    But Added Upon probably holds the record for the Mormon novel in print the longest — over 100 years.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — April 5, 2008 @ 12:04 am

  21. I think this story speaks for itself.

    Comment by ECS — April 5, 2008 @ 8:19 am

  22. Added Upon is a quite interesting novel. The first third of the novel dragged, but was okay. The middle third I found absolutely fascinating and (mostly) well done (including the science fiction parts near the end of the middle third). But I found the last third to be dreadful.

    As a writer once said in a totally different context, but which applies to Added Upon (paraphrased from memory): Start off well, and the audience will follow you anywhere. End well and they will feel satisfied. But have a so-so beginning and an unsatisfying ending – well, no matter how good the middle part is, they just won’t enjoy themselves.

    Added Upon is hardly a terrible book, but I doubt I will ever re-read it unless I’m going to publsh a paper on it or something.

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — April 6, 2008 @ 9:33 am

  23. As a writer once said

    Watch out, I hear BHodges coming!

    Comment by Peter LLC — April 7, 2008 @ 6:07 am

  24. Watch out, I hear BHodges coming!

    Well, if you must know, the writer I was referring to was Peter David (mostly know for the 80s and 90s Hulk comics and a thousand or so Star Trek books), and he was discussing the Ang Lee Hulk movie.

    Like I said, totally different context. But still a truism.

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — April 7, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

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