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on August 23, 2002
I first read Van Wagoner's book a decade ago, but I dusted it off recently as I read through Richard Abanes' excellent tome "One Nation Under Gods." Although Van Wagoner is, as I far as I know and understand it, LDS, he is very fair with the facts, even though he shows the LDS Church leaders from the turn of the 20th century in a less-than-honest light. I find it amusing where several previous reviewers on Amazon claimed that this is an anti-LDS work. Why should something be considered "anti-LDS" just because it gives the documented facts with the sources included? A religion that struggles with only encouraging "faith-promoting" materials is one that should be highly scruntinized before one attempts to become invovled with it.
The book's type is small--I estimate it at 11 point--so be prepared to put on the reading glasses. I do like the fact, though, that Van Wagoner kept the endnotes to a minimum. I also appreciated that they were at the end of the chapters rather than in the back of the book. (I wish publishers of academic works would cease from the pointless practice of sticking the endnotes in the back of the book. In fact, what's wrong with footnotes?)
Since Van Wagoner has written the book, much has happened in Mormon polygamy, including the public arrest and trial of one Utah polygamist who, I believe, was prosecuted thanks to the Salt Lake Olympics. I have known some Utah polygamists who hold to the very ideas officially believed by Mormons before 1890 (or 1904). In fact, they believe that the LDS Church is apostate because its leaders changed a vital doctrine of Mormonism. I would almost have to side with them in their contention that their version is much more authentic and closer in origin to the pure Mormonism as explained by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, among others. Polygamy is an ugly business, though, as I have seen firsthand some of the situations with which current polygamists have to deal. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to get a clearer picture of polygamy in America, especially as it was historically believed by the LDS Church.
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on March 13, 2007
As a direct descendant of a prominent Mormon pioneer, I thought I knew most of the basic facts about Mormon polygamy. You know, the stuff they teach you in Sunday School and Seminary. Then, about a year ago, I talked to a relative who'd been doing some research on my pioneer ancestor and found that Brigham Young had sent him on a mission to England for the express purpose of preaching polygamy direcly to the Gentiles (non-Mormons) over there, on the assumption that this would be a great way to get Victorian Britons interested in joining the LDS Church. Needless to say, this approach flopped big-time from the get-go, and my ancestor quickly returned to Utah. This curious episode piqued my interest in the history of Mormon polygamy. Might there be some other stuff that wasn't being presented in the modern Mormon lesson manuals?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact. And boatloads of it. Van Wagoner's extensively footnoted book has filled in numerous and enormous gaps in my knowledge -- gaps I didn't even know existed. For example, I'd always thought that the history of Mormon polygamy could be cleanly divided into two periods: pre-Manifesto and post-Manifesto. Wrong. Van Waggoner walks us through half a dozen distinct phases that polygamy has gone through, up to and including the current phase. What's even more interesting is the vast difference in the Church's attitude toward polygamy during these different periods. For example, I had no idea how central polygamy was to Mormon theology during the second half of the 19th century. I didn't know that multiple LDS prophets had declared polygamy to be an absolute prerequisite for achieving the highest state of exaltation in the hereafter, or that polygamy was viewed as an eternal gospel principle that would never again be taken from the earth. Nor did I know anything about the somewhat shady goings-on between the first Manifesto and the second Manifesto. For that matter, I hadn't even heard of the second Manifesto. Nor did I know that most of the modern polygamist sects can trace their existence to the rumored events of a single 24-hour period in the 1880s (several years before the first Manifesto). Nor did I know just how big a political issue Mormon polygamy was at the national level during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And I was quite surprised to learn that a form of polyandry was practiced in the early days of Mormonism, albeit on a very limited basis.

These are but a few of the tidbits that lie in store for the reader of Van Wagoner's book.
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on May 25, 2000
This book is an example of how good history is written. The book is balanced in its treatment of the Mormon religion in every way. The research is very thorough. Any student of Mormon polygamy or the History of Utah should read this book. It discusses every aspect of Mormon polygamy from its earliest days to the present, and perhaps the book's greatest highlight is that it does not shy away from controversial topics. A MUST read!
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on August 15, 2010
There is a seminal moment in Orwell's "1984" where the fictional totalitarian regime announces that "We are at war with East Asia, we have always been at war with East Asia". Up to that point in the book, the regime had been at war with Eurasia. As I read Van Wagoner's book, I was often reminded of that line. Lacking adequate control of information, the LDS Church cannot plausibly deny polygamy ever happened like Orwell's antagonist did. Their discomfort, de-emphasis, complete removal from teaching manuals, and outright hostility to those splinter groups that still practice it are certainly the next best thing.

Van Wagoner's book traces the LDS experience with polygamy from the early days of Joseph Smith's clandestine relationships through Brigham Young's normalization of the practice through John Taylor's legal battles with the US government through Wilfred Woodruff and Joseph F. Smith's oftimes deceptive ambiguity on the matter and finally to the persecution of those who chose to continue the practice under later leaders. The reader gets the impression of going full circle (monogamy to polygamy to anti-polygamy) without the LDS Church ever having to admit wrongdoing or apologizing - much like Orwell's antagonist. Along the way, Van Wagoner attempts to paint a picture of the impact of the institution on the lives of its practitioners (the chapter on Women under Polygamy is especially rich in this regard).

I recommend this book to any LDS practitioner wishing to have a sober look at the subject material left out of their Sunday School manuals. I would also recommend it for any secular readers who wish to gain some good anthropological insights from a radical social experiment.
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on January 16, 2006
Van Wagoner has written the best book chronicling Mormonism practice of polygamy from the time it was first instituted to the when the Mormon Church abandoned the practice, he also goes into modern day polygamists. The author gives an overview of polygamy's beginnings by piecing together the little evidence that exists concerning Joseph Smith's practice of polygamy. He discusses how Smith kept the practice secret from most the church and from the general public. He also touches on the little known practice of polyandry where some of the women Smith married already had existing husbands. The author then goes over the practice in early Utah and the Church's official announcement of the practice in 1852. Van Wagner explores the legal problems the Mormon Church endured during the years of practice. He then explores the reasons behind Church President Wilford Woodruff's decision to publicly announce the end of the practice in 1890. Van Wagoner also explores the Churches secret continuance of the practice between 1890 and 1904 and the final announcement of abandoning the practice in 1904 by Joseph F. Smith. Van Wagoner goes on to discuss Mormon break off groups that have continued to practice polygamy and their belief that Church President John Taylor had a revelation in 1886 saying to never abandon the practice. By reading this book people will more fully understand the history of the practice.
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on July 19, 1998
This book is obviously well researched and documented, as evidenced by the thorough footnotes and references. The author does an excellent job avoiding subjective conclusions about the matter, and instead sticks to proven facts. The author does not insinuate that the current LDS church sanctions polygamy, it is simply a thorough look at the church's polygamous past, which can hardly be denied. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Mormon History.
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on July 14, 2000
My hat's off to Richard Van Wagoner for this exploration of a subject little understood by either Mormons or non-Mormons. While there is SO much more that could be said on the issue of plural marriage and the over-all role it played in the world view of the early Saints, it is an excellent "primer" on the matter. For those who really want to understand plural marriage in the Church, it will be necessary to read much more, but this is a great place to start. (A previous reviewer notes Todd Compton's "In Sacred Loneliness" as a good one, which I echo, as well as "Mormon Enigma" by Newell and Tippits. Numerous other biographies and histories, especially those NOT written by BYU professors or FARMS writers or their ilk, will provide glimpses and insights into the world of polygamy.)
Van Wagoner gives a broad over-view of plural marriage from its first indications when Joseph Smith "married" Fanny Alger, all the way up to modern-day polygamist fundamentalists and some of the bizarre twists and turns that it has taken along the way (includes discussions of the Lebarons and other contemporary polygmists, as well as the difficulty in prosecuting polygamy and bygamy in Utah). His treatment is thorough (though necessarily brief for an overview of this nature), without being judgemental or "anti-mormon" in any way. While many may argue that we don't have a need to continue to go over the "shadows of our past," I suggest that you can't understand Mormonism without an appreciation of this central and sacred doctrine of Joseph Smith and his successors. Equally important, the book is a delight to read, as Van Wagoner proves himself a capable writer. This is the kind of reading that is, in my opinion, essential for those Mormons seeking to really understand the roots of their religion. But YOU get to decide what it all means!
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on December 4, 1999
Van Wagoner is a gifted amateur historian who has obviously done an incredible amount of research as reflected in the detail and breath of the book. I would recommend it as an excellent general treatment of Mormon plural marriage but have a couple of criticisms: Van Wagoner occasionally presents rather controversial quotes of questionable provenance without sufficient context for the reader to evaluate them. Not a problem for the experienced reader, but problematic for the books intended audience. Additionally, the book is so busy covering all the ground there is to be covered that certain aspects of the practice get short shrift. its certainly worth reading though, especially as a companion to "In Sacred Loneliness" by Todd Compton.
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on March 26, 2003
Highly recommended because the author really bends over backwards to present an unbiased account of what really happened with Mormon Polygamy, which is hard to do since it is such as passionate issue.
What amazed me was reading Mormon Polygamy was like reading Church History. A lot of events in 1800's LDS church history are intertwined with polygamy, but you would never know.
This is not "anti" literature. If you wait for an "official" LDS book on the Mormon Polygamy, you will probably die of old age.
So this is the next best thing!
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on October 11, 1998
This is a very well-researched and balanced history of Mormon fundamentalism. As a former polygamist myself, I am impressed with the author's ability to look at all the available information and report it fairly. If I were to have any criticism, it would be that he doesn't sufficiently consider the axes that some of his sources (especially 19th century ones) were grinding -- but perhaps that is because he doesn't seem to have one of his own. Most information on Mormon polygamy is _very_ biased, either in favor or against. This is one book that doesn't lean either way, but just tells the story. And whether "Latter-day Saints" like it or not, there ARE other people who are _NOT_ members of their church, but whose allegiance to the Book of Mormon and to the teachings of Joseph Smith (many now disavowed by the LDS) nevertheless qualifies them to be called "Mormon" -- and the Mormon fundamentalist polygamists are among them!!
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