1905: Dismantling Polygamy

Sharon Vermont and Religious Memory, Part 1

Straining at their bits, more than twenty horses lumbered into Sharon, Vermont on December 22, 1905. Behind them trailed a “polished shaft of granite” weighing in at ninety-one tons and measuring 38.5 feet. When erected the pillar would commemorate the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith’s birth a century before. But the ramrod-straight obelisk was more than a heartfelt tribute to a man whose death in 1844 believers lamented still. It also became a material axis around which a new understanding of Mormonism’s sacred past could be constructed in the wake of the church’s recent decision to fully disavow the practice of plural marriage.[1]

Mormons had long placed the practice of “celestial marriage” at the center of their theological universe, believing that God, through his prophet, had once again restored the biblical practice in the latter-days. To be a true follower of Joseph Smith was to accept plural marriage in both theory and practice. But polygamy, in American detractors’ eyes, did not good citizens make. Throughout the nineteenth century the nation turned to the instumentalities of law to change the Mormons’ heterodox unions: jailing polygamists, revoking franchise, and even disincorporating the church. When the nation’s leaders discovered that the Saints had not renounced the practice as promised in 1890, they threatened to remove Mormon Senator Reed Smoot from national office if the church did not fall in line. When President Joseph F Smith (Joseph’s nephew) arrived in Vermont he found himself in the unenviable position of needing to remove his people’s faith in plural marriage without undermining their confidence in other revelation as well as revelators—including himself.[2]

To President Smith the shaft became one way by which to reorient the Saints’ own understanding of themselves and their sacred history. Dedicating the stone, Smith directed his followers’ gaze away from Joseph’s institution of plural marriage, and towards his direct role in restoring Christ’s original church from apostasy, acting as a continual conduit for heavenly revelation, and his bestowal of divine power upon his successors. The monument itself typified Smith’s emphasis, with the cement foundation symbolizing the primitive church, a granite base representing a “rock of revelation,” and the pillar itself “reflecting the light of heaven” which rested upon Joseph Smith. In emphasizing Joseph’s communication with the divine, President Smith called on the Saints to make Joseph’s oft-ignored “first vision” of God the Father and Jesus Christ a central part of their religious story. In so doing, he sought to provide an alternative narrative on which members might build a sense of themselves and their history, one which emphasized persecution for belief rather than polygamous practice, and stressed the need for continued contact with the divine. Working together, material symbol and textual interpretation helped chart a new path for both the Mormon Church and its individual followers at the close of one era and the beginning of another.[3]

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[1] Kathleen Flake, “Re-Placing Memory: Latter-day Saint Use of Historical Monuments and Narrative in the Early Twentieth Century,” Religion & American Culture, vol. 13 no. 1 (Winter 2003), 69-109; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial,” Historic Sites, www.lds.org/locations/joseph-smith-birthplace-memorial, accessed 7/24/18.

[2] Flake, “Re-Placing Memory.”

[3] Joseph F. Smith, Proceedings at the Dedication of the Joseph Smith Memorial Monument (n.d., ca. 1906), 22-24.