Heathen Polygamy in the Anglican Archives

1 Jun

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.

3 Responses to “Heathen Polygamy in the Anglican Archives”

  1. Monica June 1, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    Very interesting post! As an art historian, this immediately made me think of how polygamous men were represented in portraiture. Sometimes art historians will argue that a visual emphasis on the portrait sitter’s beard helps to underscore the virility of the sitter. It would be interesting (from a visual standpoint) to analyze how many polygamous men were bearded at this time. Although it was common for men to have a beard, one could also jest that the beard helped to emphasize these men’s ability to perform sexually.

    And to take this idea further (from a visual and historical standpoint), it would be interesting to see when beards went out of fashion for Mormon men – how long after the 1890 Manifesto?🙂

  2. amanda5245 June 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    Monica, thanks for the fantastic comment! I never thought to look at paintings or photographs of polygamists. One of my plans is to look at some travel narratives that describe polygamy. I’ll be sure to look at the illustrations and report back.

  3. Christopher June 1, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

    Awesome stuff, Amanda. I’m really excited to see your research develop.

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