The Forgotten Women Who Gave Us BYU
Four years ago in the fall of 2015, I attended the BYU Homecoming Spectacular featuring David Archuleta (who is not important to this story at all, but he was adorable and my favorite part of the night). As part of the evening’s events they honored a man named Abraham Owen Smoot, an important figure in church history and especially that of BYU (which he personally funded in a time of the institution’s financial crisis and consequently died penniless). His great great great great (I forgot how many greats) granddaughter is a singer and performed as well, right alongside the adorable David (and she was very good, too). Recently a news story was published questioning the wisdom of honoring this man so much without ever mentioning his complete life story – which includes the fact that he owned multiple slaves, was a vocal proponent of keeping slavery legal, and very instrumental in perpetuating the priesthood and temple ban on black members and making slavery legal in Utah. As a missionary he was asked to distribute literature for Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign in 1844, but wouldn’t because it was critical of slavery (yay, Joseph!).
One of his slaves named Tom was a particularly interesting situation, because this black man was also a baptized member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not only was Abraham Smoot his slave master, he was also his bishop. It boggles the modern mind.
Luckily in 2019 we have figured out that hey, owning other people is WRONG. We can look back at his active campaigning to continue slavery and acknowledge that he was gravely mistaken. (And I suspect that Brother Smoot would agree and look with regret on those actions now if given the chance.) People are discussing what to do with his memory as this knowledge becomes more public. We don’t have to torch the campus building named after him, but you know, maybe we could put a plaque out front acknowledging the names of the slaves he owned who also dedicated their lives (against their will) to Smoot’s work, freeing him up to run the academy that later became BYU. I think this sounds totally reasonable. Let’s take ownership of the university savior’s history and mistakes, and honor those who have been erased from the story.
I didn’t know that Smoot was a slave owner at the Homecoming Spectacular in 2015, and yet I was deeply bothered by the evening dedicated to his honor for an entirely different reason. I had been intensely learning all about polygamy during the 12 months prior to this (from Joseph Smith’s polygamy up to modern day practices). In between performances by BYU groups they played a video montage of Abraham Smoot’s life, talking about his great faith and fortitude, and the trust placed in him by prophets such as Joseph Smith, Wilford Woodruff, and Brigham Young. The music to the video suddenly stopped after the short bio of his life and mentioned his wife for the very first time. It said that she didn’t like the desert they’d moved to, and that she “complained” about their circumstances. I rolled my eyes internally about the way she was described compared to him, because come on – all she did was complain, and he NEVER complained about anything? That seemed a little simplistic.
At another point in the video it quoted a letter he’d written to his wife. At the second mention of her, I decided to Google “Abraham Owen Smoot polygamy”, right there on my phone (we were on the very back row of the side section, so no one would’ve seen me). Turns out he had SIX wives, and 27 kids. Suddenly his first wife’s complaints make a lot of sense. Your husband brings you to the desert where you hardly have any food and your starving kids scavenge outside after dinner for anything else they can find to eat, while your husband gives all of your money to the school that would become BYU, goes away on missions, and when he’s around he still has multiple other women to spend time with and impregnate. *He* didn’t just die penniless to save BYU, so did all of his wives and their children. Abraham Owen Smoot was heavily in debt when he passed away, so I assume that financial burden passed on to his living wives. But who gets a Homecoming Spectacular with the adorable David Archuleta in his honor, and who doesn’t even get mentioned or named? Not his six wives, only him. If my children and I ever live alone and starve on the frontier so that future generations can have the option for quality, affordable education, I’d really appreciate them singing a song in my honor at some point, dang it.
David and the great great granddaughter were talking about how nothing they did tonight could have happened without Abraham – not the homecoming weekend, the Marriott Center, the performances, the school, nothing. I wondered what it would be like to be say, his 5th invisible and unnamed wife who spent most of her time raising kids alone while her husband spent time with the other wives or with the prophets, funneling all of their money into an institution of higher learning rather than his family.
I graduated from BYU. This guy impacted my life. But what about his wives? What about the supposed “equal” role that we women play in marriages and history? Why could they not even mention 5/6 of his wives, and only mention how the other one complained?
Long after everyone else in the audience had clapped and moved on to ballroom dance performances and the Jazz Band, I was still sitting there, fuming a little on behalf of the stories I knew were being ignored in order to promote a more whitewashed version of the polygamist man who saved our university. (Who might’ve been a genuinely swell guy (outside of his racism), but come on! It was too convenient that only one wife was even mentioned. Own up to your polygamous roots, BYU.)
Not only did Abraham Smoot do what he did with the help of enslaved blacks, he did it with the help of six women also largely missing from the public story. All of these people made BYU possible today! Let’s have a concert and honor all of them for once too, and stop erasing women’s contributions to our church by only praising the men they were associated with.
(And hey, maybe name a few buildings at BYU after some faithful pioneer woman for a change. Below are some suggestions.)