Breaking Conformity Equilibria: The Case of Mormon Polygamy
By Bryan Caplan
Polygamy was Mormonism’s most controversial theological novelty. Critics casually equated it with slavery, dubbing them “the twin relics of barbarism.” Whatever you think about the wisdom of polygamy, its emergence in 19th-century Mormonism raises a deeper question. Given human conformity, how did such a radical break from social convention ever get off the ground? John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet provides an intriguing window into the sales process:
By April, Nauvoo buzzed with tales of adultery, “spiritual
wifery,” and apostasy. At the church’s annual conference, Hyrum Smith felt
obliged to contradict rumors ” about Elders Heber C. Kimball, Brigham
Young, himself, and others of the Twelve, alleging that a sister had been shut
in a room for several days, and that they had endeavored to induce her to
believe in having two wives.” The sister in question was Martha
often responded with disbelief and disgust when church leaders taught them the
doctrine of celestial marriage or approached them about becoming plural wives,
Brotherton was somewhat unusual in making her disillusionment with the church
and its leaders a matter of public scandal. She did so because of John C.
Bennett. The mercurial Bennett lost his church membership in June following
allegations of his own sexual indiscretions, and he soon began assembling evidence
he could use — as one unsympathetic newspaper put it — “to glut his
revenge upon the Prophet.” Bennett met with Brotherton in St. Louis, where
the young woman and her parents had relocated, and persuaded her to detail her
travails in a letter, a notarized copy of which was published in one of the
city’s newspapers and later included in Bennett’s exposé of Mormon polygamy,
political power, and sacred rituals.
In the affidavit, Brotherton
stated that Young and Kimball persuaded her to meet with Joseph Smith in the
upper room above Smith’s store, the same room in which Young had officiated at
two of Smith’s plural weddings and in which he received his endowment.
According to Brotherton, Smith and Kimball left her with Young, who then
“arose, locked the door, closed the window, and drew the curtain”
before asking her if she would marry him “were it lawful and right.”
Young then explained the prophet’s teaching on the matter:
Joseph has had a revelation from God that it is lawful and right for a man to
have two wives; for, as it was in the days of Abraham, so it shall be in these
last days, and whoever is the first that is willing to take up the cross will
receive the greatest blessings; and if you will accept of me, I will take you
straight to the celestial kingdom; and if you will have me in this world, I
will have you in that which is to come.
When Brotherton demurred, Young, after demanding a kiss, went to
fetch Smith. According to Brotherton’s affidavit, the prophet provided her with
glib encouragement: “if you do not like it in a month or two, come to me,
and I will make you free again; and if he [Young] turns you off, I will take
you on.” Young proceeded more cautiously and seriously, asking, “Did
you ever see me act in any way wrong in England, Martha?” Brotherton
begged for time to consider the proposal. She and her parents soon left Nauvoo,
convinced that Smith and his apostles were “deceivers.”
While this particular effort blew up in his face, Young was of course amazingly successful in the end. He didn’t just revolutionize Mormon family structure for six decades; he personally married fifty-five women and fathered fifty-nine children. So let’s break down the key components of his sales pitch.
1. Alpha status. The supreme leader and his trusted lieutenants personally manage the persuasion.
2. Isolation. The would-be convert is physically separated from contrary influences by the believers.
3. Slippery slope. According to the account, Young leads with a hypothetical, “asking her if she would marry him ‘were it lawful and right.'” Once the hypothetical is on the table, he affirms the premise, invoking the teaching of the prophet.
4. Try and see for yourself. After all this, the salesmen still don’t expect a sudden conversion. Instead, they urge Brotherton to try their proposal by emphasizing how readily she can back out.
My guess: The tactics of the Mormon inner circle well-tailored for their purpose. But do they extend to non-conformity in general? To take one pressing example: Could you use an analogous rhetorical steps to convince students to forego traditional brick-and-mortar college in favor of online learning? I doubt it, but I’m curious. Can our commitment to college really be more rigid than 19th-century Americans’ commitment to monogamy? Does society penalize educational non-conformity more than marital non-conformity? Or what?