a new book by
Carol Lynn Pearson
Noted Mormon poet says it’s time for Church to disavow polygamy root and branch
“Polygamy?” says the Mormon Church. “We gave that up long ago.”
Not so, claims veteran LDS writer Carol Lynn Pearson in her new book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men. “The soft statements by leaders today that the Lord’s standard for marriage is monogamy unless he directs otherwise are no match for what has been writ large and in granite in our history, our discourse, and our psyches for nearly two centuries,” Ms. Pearson writes. “The electrifying, secret whispers of the Prophet Joseph and the loud sermons of Brigham Young still echo through chapels, temples, homes, and hearts, assuring the Saints that we are not yet finished with polygamy.”
This, the author claims, leads large numbers of loyal members—especially women—to fear heaven, to withhold love in marriages, to doubt their own worth, to lose faith in God, and often to leave the church.
In researching this book Ms. Pearson reached out to Mormons and former Mormons via social media in March 2014, asking for their feelings on eternal polygamy and the unequal sealing policies that reflect it. On the first day, more than 2400 people took the survey, and within four weeks the number of respondents exceeded 8000. The results, along with Pearson’s own personal narrative and dramatic glimpses into history, weave a story that has never before been told.
“I live in constant fear that I will die before my husband and he will be sealed to a second wife, meaning I will live in a polygamous relationship for eternity. I’ve told him if this happens I will choose hell over heaven and he believes me. This is hard on our marriage.”
“A nice Mormon guy hung up the phone when he found I was a sealed widow. He said ‘Why would I want to love someone in this life and then turn her over to her first husband for eternity?—along with the children that came from my very own DNA and now belong to him?’”
“When I was a teenaged boy, I thought it was cool to look forward to lots of sex with my circle of wives in heaven. Now the idea of eternal polygamy disgusts me. No way do I want my wife to feel like I have all of her and she doesn’t have all of me. Crazy stuff, this doctrine.”
Dr. Gregory Prince, Mormon historian and author of the biographies of President David O. McKay and church historian Leonard Arrington, acknowledges that the book will be controversial, but says, “Carol Lynn Pearson has hit a home run in her quest to illuminate both the damage that Mormonism’s de facto practice of polygamy continues to inflict, and the route to a better, more humane place, a ‘more excellent way.’”
Praise for The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy
"Rarely in the history of Mormonism has a literary work become a proximate cause of a shift in the way the institutional church views itself, interprets its past or charts its future, with Juanita Brooks’s Mountain Meadows Massacre and Lester Bush’s “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” being on the very short list. The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy has the potential of joining that list. Blending her personal passion and insights with the voices of the respondents to her massive survey, Carol Lynn Pearson has hit a home run in her quest to illuminate both the damage that Mormonism’s de facto practice of polygamy continues to inflict, and the route to a better, more humane place. Those who truly hope for eternal polygamy or who resent any call to institutional reform will be upset, but countless others will rejoice that she has shown 'a more excellent way.'" —Dr. Gregory A. Prince, author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History
"The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy is a major contribution. I congratulate Carol Lynn Pearson for her courage and caring in bringing to light—and hopefully helping to bring to an end—the ongoing cruel and discriminatory Mormon doctrine of “eternal polygamy.” This remnant from a time long past is inconsistent with the best of Mormon teachings and is an obstacle to the spiritual and temporal partnership both women and men yearn for." —Dr. Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade and The Real Wealth of Nations; President of the Center for Partnership Studies
"The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy is a powerful and poignant work of art that succeeds marvelously in reaching LDS readers of both conservative and progressive viewpoints as well as the general public. Carol Lynn Pearson’s analyses and critiques of traditional teachings about polygamy on either side of the veil are convincing. This is a book that will raise some eyebrows, but it will likely have a constructive impact on LDS policies and teachings during the rest of this century. —Dr. Armand Mauss, author of Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport, All Abraham’s Children, and The Angel and the Beehive
"Polygamy has never ended for the Mormon people. So many of the faithful fear that we will have to live polygamy in heaven—that God means us to, and that the leaders of our church do as well. I am so grateful that one of our greatest writers and our most courageous voices of conscience has created a way for us to break the silence and have this desperately needed conversation about sacrifice, hurt, and hope." —Dr. Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl, and co-editor of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings
Carol Lynn Pearson is the author of more than 40 books and plays that together have sold more than 800,000 copies—autobiography, inspiration, humor, and fiction. Her memoir Goodbye, I Love You tells the story of her marriage to a gay man, their divorce, ongoing friendship, and her caring for him as he died of AIDS. This story made her a guest on such programs as “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and “Good Morning, America.” She was featured in “People Magazine.”
A stage play, Facing East, the story of a Mormon couple dealing with the suicide of their gay son, premiered in Salt Lake City, had a limited Off-Broadway run and a San Francisco run. She wrote and performed over 300 times internationally a one-woman play, “Mother Wove the Morning,” in which she plays sixteen women throughout history in search of the female face of God, and which earned an award from “Booklist” as “one of the top 15 videos of the year.”
She has been a featured speaker at numerous events as diverse as the International Conference of the Sisters of Mercy, the National Association of Women Judges, and the International Conference of the Red Hat Society.
She considers her newest book, The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy, to be one of the most important works of her literary career and a vital move forward in the worldwide tide toward transforming patriarchy into partnership.
Read Carol Lynn's full biography here.
A Visit with Carol Lynn Pearson on The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy
What made you decide to tackle this difficult subject? I spent years haunted by the subject of eternal polygamy beginning in high school, when my seminary teacher bore testimony that polygamy is God’s special form of marriage for the most righteous, that we have many Mothers in Heaven, and that when we young women are less selfish we will see the beauty of this principle and yearn to live it. I cried many tears through my college years, as this was final proof that God cares more for men than for women. More recently, when an elderly cousin told me that she fears her husband on the other side has already taken another wife, I felt that impulse you feel when you see someone in pain, an impulse to help. I knew I was in a position to do that.
Is this an academic book? No, it’s a very personal book, written in my own voice. It has documented historical material, but it is primarily based on my own beliefs, my own life, the lives of my ancestors, and the stories of many women and men today.
Where did you get these stories? Two years ago I sent out a survey, asking Mormons of all types to share their feelings on the subject of eternal polygamy and the inequality of the current sealing practices. On the first day we received over 2400 responses, and four weeks later we had over 8000. I spent months reading through the thousands of stories and comments that were included, seeing themes emerge, and I knew I had to write this book. The tremendous pain that was expressed by women and by men cried out to be addressed. I feel deeply honored to be able to share these stories and hopefully point us in a better direction.
Why you? If not me, then who? But why not leave it up to church leadership to handle these issues? Why should we women make the men in leadership do all the work? We are the ones who understand our lives and our hearts. We are the ones who feel our own pain, and it’s up to women to be brave enough to share our feelings and ask that attention be paid.
Is this an anti-Mormon book? Not at all. I am an active member of my California ward. The book has high praise for the Prophet Joseph Smith and for the institutional church. I believe that all of us have both the right and the obligation to share our part of the vision of Zion. “Women’s issues” are issues that impact all of us. One of the statements that I love from Brother Joseph is: “I have always had the satisfaction of seeing truth triumph over error, and darkness give way before light.” We are always searching for new light, for higher truth.
What do you hope to see happen from this book? I hope to see this issue placed on many tables for examination. I hope to see more peace of mind in women and in men as we contemplate an eternity free of the fear of polygamy. I hope to see sweeter marriages in which a wife does not hold back a part of her heart because someday she may have to share her husband with other women. I hope to see families stronger because there is no more tension over who will belong with whom in heaven. I hope to see a little less sadness and a little more love.
Quotes from The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy
There are many things that help speed our journey to a Partnership Zion. Our Mormon wagon is full of intelligence, hard work, ingenuity, determination, faith, kindness, and service. But there is one particular thing on board that drags us down. It weighs nothing, but is heavy as a broken heart. We carry a peculiar burden, an extra layer of male entitlement and female impediment that no other religious body in the Judeo-Christian tradition has to carry: a very distressing and complicated past and present and future with God-ordained polygamy.
The soft statements by church directives today that the Lord’s standard for marriage is monogamy unless he directs otherwise are no match for what has been writ large and in granite in our history, our discourse, and our psyches for nearly two centuries. The electrifying, secret whispers of Joseph and the loud sermons of Brigham still echo through chapels, temples, homes, and hearts, assuring the Saints that we are not yet finished with polygamy.
When the Ghost is finally banished, each young and tender girl will learn at church and at home that if she marries she will become the singular and full partner of a husband of her choice and that her divine nature and individual worth are such that she will never be “one of,” here or in heaven. The writings and the folklore around polygamy, the old stories and the statements even of prophets, will have been put away in the drawer marked “expired,” and will generate no more fear than ghost stories told around the campfire.
Every individual member of the church and every congregation will feel more open to the presence of our long-lost Heavenly Mother, for the disturbing Ghost has been evicted from both earth and heaven, and the glorious Goddess—full and sole Partner that she is in the creation and sustaining of life—is welcomed back into the family.
Marriages will be sweeter, with no holding back a piece of the heart just in case. A wife will sleep better, never startled in the night by the terrible thought, “…if I die before he does.…” An elderly widow will spend her last days with peace of mind and no disquieting thought of “… I wonder if he has taken another wife already….” A husband will invest fully in his one and precious partner, with never a thought that she is not enough here or will be added to in heaven.
A widow will be able to mourn her loss, and then, if she wishes, look forward to a new relationship in which she can be seen as the desirable woman that she is, unobstructed by prior attachment. Her love for a past husband and a present husband do not conflict, for she knows that God is not asking her to make impossible choices, and that in heaven there will be many happy surprises.