Book Review: The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy by Carol Lynn Pearson
I have to start out by saying that I absolutely loved this book! There are several books out there about our church’s history on polygamy, but this is the only book out there (that I know of) that specifically addresses eternal polygamy.
This book is incredibly important because eternal polygamy is practiced in our church today. Though our church doesn’t practice polygamy anymore, it still allows a man to be sealed to more than one woman. This is still an instance of polygamy, even though the church will excommunicate any member practicing “earthly” polygamy.
The book doesn’t just talk about polygamy but also includes other sealing practices that have been problematic. I’m sure that many church members don’t know about some of these sealing practices since they don’t experience them. For example, I used to think that if a couple got divorced, their sealing was automatically canceled. Such is not the case.
In many instances, two people will marry and stay married forever. But what if divorce is involved? What if one spouse dies very early on in the marriage? What if someone remarries for time while still being sealed for eternity to someone else? These things do happen and this book addresses all of them!
The book is divided into different topics having to do with polygamy. In between each chapter is a section called “Other Voices” which contains the words of those who have suffered in some way from the current sealing practices. Some of the voices even come from local church leaders, such as bishops. Even bishops find this practice to be problematic. There are examples from active members and from those who have left the church because of the suffering these problems have caused them.
You will also learn a lot about our current church sealing practices in regards to not just women, but to how it affects the whole family. The main point the author makes throughout the book is that polygamy was not instituted by God. It was a mistake that men brought about. Pearson says that, in our church, we never talk about our prophets or church leaders as making mistakes. But Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are not exempt from making mistakes. They were good people, but they made an error with polygamy. Pearson doesn’t condemn our past prophets, but acknowledges that they have made errors at times. She loves Joseph Smith but is also heartbroken by his introducing polygamy into our church.
I especially love Chapter 3: The “Why” of Mormon Polygamy. Pearson lists fourteen reasons that are used to explain the “why” of polygamy. She expounds on each reason and debunks them all. One reason she refers to is how polygamy was a way for God to command an Abrahamic sacrifice from the saints. Pearson tells us that polygamy is different from Abraham’s sacrifice, because “Isaac is spared the blow. Mormon women are not” (64).
The book is filled with many interesting stories. Here is an example:
“Earlier Joseph had insisted that Helen’s father Heber ‘surrender his wife, his beloved Vilate, and give her to Joseph in marriage.’ After some days of deepest anguish by Heber and by Vilate, the offering was made. Joseph rejoiced at Heber’s devotion to him and told Heber it was merely a test. Yes, God spared Abraham the sacrifice—God spared Heber the sacrifice—but God did not spare Lucy and Helen and thousands of other Mormon women the fully enacted sacrifice of placing themselves on the altar as directed by their prophet” (151).
I love some of the quotes the women in the 1800s gave about polygamy. Pearson did a wonderful job in researching this topic and bringing this information to light. In church we never talk about how polygamy made women suffer. “How Mormon women were made to feel under the trial of past polygamy and feel still under the fear of polygamy future is something that we have never looked in the face” (112). We talk about how it wasn’t forced on anyone and that only a minority practiced it. But the truth of the matter is that, back then, members were being taught that living polygamy was essential to enter the celestial kingdom.
When I was almost done with this book, I was feeling the weight of the things I had read. I felt that a change needed to be made—right now! And then I came to the second to last chapter, which is called “Toward a Partnership Future” and it gives the reader hope that changes will be made in the sealing practices soon. Once that happens, church members will be spared all the suffering that these practices have caused. Pearson lists three core beliefs and expounds on them in great detail. One belief she lists is, “A couple who chooses to marry in the temple can go into that holy place and stand on equal ground” (189).
I strongly recommend this book to every member of the church, especially those who are haunted by polygamy. I especially recommend it to those, like me, who feel that “Gender inequality in the church clouds almost everything for me right now” (181). It will give you hope that things will change.
I’ll end with these wonderful words by a 19th century woman: “Polygamy is alright when properly carried out—on a shovel.”