Op-Eds

Pioneer Day’s Polygamous Connection Continues


The following op-ed was published today in the Daily Herald.

July 24 is Utah’s second summer celebration of independence. On this state holiday, we remember the pioneers who on this date in 1847 arrived in the Salt Lake valley to settle the area.

Fleeing from a mob and exiting the borders of the American states, Brigham Young and his Mormon followers started a new society in the desert, independent from the government that had forsaken them. In a letter to the U.S. President summarizing their intent, Young declared:

We would esteem a territorial government of our own as one of the richest boons of earth, and while we appreciate the Constitution of the United States as the most precious among the nations, we feel that we had rather retreat to the deserts, islands or mountain caves than consent to be ruled by governors and judges whose hands are drenched in the blood of innocence and virtue, who delight in injustice and oppression.

There are many reasons for which the early Latter-day Saints were persecuted, religious discrimination and concerns about concentrated political power among them. Of course, polygamy also played a role; it was only a few years later that the Republican Party was founded, focused on the abolition of two “barbarisms”: slavery and polygamy.

The decades that followed saw increasing intervention into this polygamous lifestyle by federal agents enforcing newly enacted laws against what had by then become the territory of Utah. LDS Church leaders went underground to avoid prosecution, and Mormon culture became insular and to some degree anti-government, so much so that the “Mormon Creed” was born and widely used, even featured as art in one LDS temple.

That motto? “Mind your own business. Saints will observe this, others ought to.”

The rest is history, but forgotten history for many in Utah. Raids against and imprisonment of many of our ancestors is so far distant from today’s society that it doesn’t get much attention.

It should—if for no other reason than the fact that many plural families continue to live amongst us, practicing their faith and living as best as they can, branded as they are as felons by their own government. We can more appropriately honor Utah’s polygamist pioneers who stood up for what they believed in, on Pioneer Day and every day, by not perpetuating the same oppressive policies against which they protested.

We’re all aware of the examples of abuse, fraud, and outright perversion in some polygamous circles. This does not, however, justify widely branding a population to which so many of us have a close connection.

In other words, a few bad apples doesn’t mean the whole bunch should be tossed out. There are numerous examples of consenting adults and loving families creating a safe and supportive environment for their children and one another.

Utah’s celebration of Pioneer Day is inherently connected to polygamy; the day is a memorial of unfair persecution based on religious and cultural differences. For a modern society that claims to increasingly support diversity and inclusion, the continued persecution of the posterity of the very people for whom the holiday exists stands as a hypocritical anomaly worth pointing out.

A modern leader in the LDS Church had something to say about this:

Our pioneer ancestors were driven from place to place by uninformed and intolerant neighbors. They experienced extraordinary hardship and persecution because they thought, acted, and believed differently from others. If our history teaches us nothing else, it should teach us to respect the rights of all people to peacefully coexist with one another.

The very state government that has institutionalized this holiday, and that was created by those persecuted in part for their support of polygamy, now criminalizes this lifestyle as a felony. Separate laws allow for the prosecution of those actually guilty of a real crime—sexual abuse, fraud, neglect, etc. Going further to punish a consenting adult relationship is inherently unjust.

Yes, let’s celebrate Pioneer Day (or, for some, pie and beer day), but let’s take up the torch of the pioneers we celebrate by putting an end to the oppression from which they fled, and which many of their posterity are subjected to still.

  • Rick Dalton

    Part of the group that arrived with President Young that day was Thomas Callister, my great great grandfather, and his two wives, Caroline Clara Smith, and Helen Mar Clark. One of these women buried a child on the plains on the trek, and the other gave birth to a child. Helen Mar Clark, the second wife, wrote a beautiful defense of plural marriage in her own hand in the 1880s as the government raids were taking place.

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