HBO's Big Love ... And Polygamy

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Big Love, HBO’s fictional take on a Mormon family living in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, has ignited the latest round of polygamy debate. The show paints a benign picture of a Viagra-popping husband happily juggling three wives and seven children. Although the Mormon Church renounced plural marriage in 1890, it’s estimated that nearly 37,000 fundamentalist Mormons still practice polygamy today, most of them living in isolated communities in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. But is polygamy a viable option for the modern American family or is Big Love just a Hollywood fantasy for men? As this collection of Atlantic writings suggests, polygamy has always played a contentious but alluring role in American life, and one some are still courting for success.

In “Among the Mormons” (April 1864), Fitz-Hugh Ludlow declared Brigham Young’s polygamous community to be “anomalous” and “one of the greatest psychological problems of the nineteenth century.” On meeting a polygamous family for the first time, Ludlow’s reaction was shocked and bewildered: “I stared,—I believed I blushed a little,—I tried to stutter a reply; ‘How can these young women sit looking at each other’s babies without flying into each other’s faces with their fingernails, and tearing out each other’s hair?’” The Mormons said nothing in response except that, perhaps, it was “a triumph of grace.” Ludlow observed that these polygamists believed, with worrisome determination, that they would soon take hold of the United States:

Before I left Utah, I discovered that, without a single exception, all the saints were inoculated with a prodigious craze, to the effect that the United States was to become a blighted chaos, and its inhabitants Mormon proselytes and citizens of Utah within the next two years,—the more sanguine said, “next summer.”

In the late nineteenth century, however, polygamy became punishable by law. No one practicing polygamy was allowed to act as a juror, hold office in courts, or vote in elections. Unfortunately for existing polygamists, the law lacked a grandfather clause that would allow them to maintain the families they’d already created. Those unwilling to give up their families were to be arrested or banished from their communities. But as Rollin Lynde Hartt noted in his article “The Mormons” (February 1900), Mormonism continued to thrive even in the face of such difficulties, and its adherents continued to practice polygamy....

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