For the last couple of weeks, I have been doing research at Girton, the first women’s college in Britain. Located just outside of Cambridge and surrounded by acres of grass, trees, and gardens, the college was founded in the 1860s by Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon, and a host of other Victorian feminists who were dedicated to the education of girls. The buildings are made of red brick and are a bit drafty, even in the midst of the British summer. The other day I found in the papers of Bessie Rayner Parkes a bit of information related to Mormonism. Parkes and her father were discussing a sex scandal involving one of their friends Emily Faithfull. Faithfull had been forced to take the stand in a divorce trial, in which she was accused of having improper relations with both the husband and the wife. Perhaps the oddest story to come from the trial was that the husband had crawled into bed with Faithfull and tried to have sex with her, while his wife was sleeping just inches away in the same bed. Continue reading
I began my archival research for my dissertation at the Lambeth Palace Library today. To find it, you cross Vauxhall, Lambeth, or any of a number of bridges over the Thames and turn onto the Lambeth Palace Road. On one side of you will be the river; on the other, a wall with a sprawling complex of medieval buildings, old churches, and gardens on the other. After a few yards, you’ll come to a small black door with a sign assuring you’ve come to the right place if you want to see the exhibition and that a guard will await you between the hours of 10:50 and 4 and that if you want to use the library, you should ring the buzzer.
Inside the library I read the Papers of the Committee on the Polygamy of Heathen Converts. Appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the committee was to decide whether or not men who had contracted polygamous marriages before they converted to Christianity should be forced to put away their extra wives as a requirement for baptism. The committee answered with an unqualified yes. Strangely, women involved in polygamous relationships did not have the same requirement. They could continue to live as polygamous wives without jeopardizing their baptism or ability to receive the sacraments.
One of the things that surprised me about the committee’s report and the letters that had been sent to them about polygamy as they were deliberating was how different portrayals of African polygamists were from Mormon polygamists.
Bishop Crowther argued that polygamy sapped men’s virility. He wrote in his “Notes on the Life of Polygamy in West Africa” (Lambeth Confernece Papers, 1888) that “the lust of the flesh immoderately indulged in leads to excess, which debilitates a man and incapacitates him to perform the marriage duty all.” He then tells the story of a chief who asked them to help him perform his marriage duty when he and Rev. C.A. Golmer first arrived in the neighborhood of Badagry in the Yoruba Mission – “Mr. Gollmers interpreted and myself being Natives of the Country, and masters of the language; the head Chief very confidently opened his mind to the interpreter, and told him of a complaint for which he wanted to ask medicine from the white man, because he was told that the Europeans were very skilful in many things. His complaint was a delicate one; which was inability to perform the marriage duty with his wives; for this he begged the white man’s assistance by way of medicines to strengthen him That the missionary took the opportunity of telling the Chief of the life of polygamy as a breach of God’s holy Ordinance, who in wisdom appointed one woman to each man, I need not waste time to relate. Though his case was irremediable, yet for the benefit of his health, he gave him some port wine.”
Although Mormon polygamists were rarely portrayed as stunning examples of manhood, they also were rarely portrayed as impotent. According to the dozens of stories in Fanny Stenhouse, Ann Eliza Young, and Maria Ward, young women were often left alone and pregnant by their polygamous husbands. This may not speak loads about their marital fealty, but it does suggest that Mormon men were at least perceived as being able to perform sexually.
A lot of work has been done on the ways in which Mormons were racialized. As Sarah Barringer Gordon has pointed out in the Mormon question, Mormon men were often seen as being kin to the Turks who kept harems. Reading the Papers of the Committee on the Polygamy of Heathen Converts, however, suggests that there is more work to be done in considering how Mormons were represented and whether those representations differed from the ways in which native polygamists were pictured.