Year of Polygamy

Ephraim’s story

Bio: Ephraim is a retired financial manager who spent his life serving the LDS church whenever it called. He spends his time now enjoying rootbeer floats and long chats with his wife and kids. 

For my wife, my daughters, my sons, and their children and grandchildren

Both of my parents were children from polygamous Mormon families.

I have more aunties and cousins than I can keep track of.

My father and my grandfathers were all good men doing the best they knew how to do.

My mother and grandmothers and aunties were all good women doing the best they knew how to do.

All of them were raised within pioneer Mormon communities; all they knew was what they saw and experienced within the perimeter of the lives they lived in those communities. They were educated by and dependent on their neighbors and friends, and everyone relied on the appointed leaders to keep their families and communities safe.

The appointed leaders were all Mormon men with strong loyalties to the Mormon church. Of course they were. My Mormon ancestors all came from other places and joined up with the saints who were colonizing Utah. I don’t fault them for their courage or their commitment – they were doing the best they knew how to do, too. And they put their faith in people who seemed to know what they were doing; who claimed to have higher knowledge and authority from god.

I was born in a small town created by Mormon fugitives from federal prosecution for polygamy. My parents, children of those first fugitives, stayed in the town where they were born because it was what they knew, where they felt safe. They weren’t always stalwart, faithful church members, but they weren’t hostile to it either. My mom was more devout than my dad. She made sure we had clean clothes wear to church, and planned Sunday dinners around church meetings. Our house had an open-door policy for family and neighbors who may need a hand, or a meal. There was always room at the inn.

Some of my older siblings left the church early on. They married and moved away. They had difficult marriages and difficult lives. The ones who stayed close to the church seemed happier, at  least that’s what they told me. When it was time for me to go on a mission, I decided to go – mostly because my bishop made it his purpose in life to get me to go. I was one of only two missionary age boys in my ward. We both left for the mission home at the same time. My bishop, and my mom, were so happy. My dad wasn’t so sure it was a good idea, but he was supportive anyway. My two younger siblings both got married while I was away. By the time I returned, it was clear that they were all in difficult marriages, and nobody was really happy. But I had been on a mission! I had shared the gospel with hundreds of people and served in leadership positions, and learned all I needed to know about how to be an exemplary Mormon. All I needed to do to be happy was stay in the church, and marry a good Mormon girl and have a bunch of kids. If I did that, then I would be happy, my wife would be happy, and god would be happy with us.

So I did that. I came home, married the girls who had faithfully waited for me while I was gone, and we settled into our life. I worked at various jobs until I found a career I could tolerate, and she stayed home and raised the kids. We both took on as many callings for the church as we could manage, and sometimes more than we could manage. We took our kids to all the meetings, we paid our tithing, and fast offerings, and missionary fund donations. We attended the temple at least monthly. We built a new home next to a brand new stake center so we would be within walking distance – we’d never have to worry about weather or vehicle problems when it was time to be in a meeting. Our kids had many other Mormon kids their age at church and school. We didn’t swim or shop or go out to eat on Sundays. We obeyed the Word of Wisdom. We wore all the right clothes. We didn’t watch R-rated movies or read anything except church-published books. We did our home teaching and visiting teaching assignments. I served in the scouting program, Sunday school, the bishopric, the stake presidency, and the stake high council. My wife served in  primary, Sunday school, young women’s program, girls’ camp, and relief society. We held family home evenings, and family prayer and scripture study. Our kids weren’t allowed to date until they were 16. The pictures on our walls were of LDS temples, and ancestors, and maps of the Mormon trail. We had a two-year supply of wheat, water, and dehydrated food of every description stuffed into every closet, nook, and cranny of our house. We created the most Mormon home possible, and it looked just like the homes of all our Mormon friends and neighbors.

I wasn’t happy. I was exhausted. I often felt angry, but didn’t understand why. My wife was exhausted, and frustrated. She was probably angry, too, but she didn’t show anger, she showed tears, and maybe fear. Because when I was angry, I would get loud, and blame her whenever our home wasn’t clean enough or tidy enough or the kids weren’t well-behaved, or the meals were late or uninspired. I thought it was her job to make the home perfect, and it was my job to make sure she did that. I was the manager, and she was the worker bee. Why did I think this? Because that’s what I had been taught my whole life, from my parents, who had learned it from their parents. I learned it at church from watching the examples of the other brethren, and from listening to priesthood lessons and general conference talks, and reading church magazines. I explained these principles to my wife whenever she expressed any dissatisfaction with our arrangement.

Our children weren’t happy either. Our daughters could see that their mother was unhappy, and – I’m sad to say – I believe they were afraid of me. We mostly got along, but it didn’t take much to set me off and then the kids would scatter. Our sons mostly steered clear of me; they didn’t like scouting or sports, but they went to church and did their priesthood assignments because they knew I would be displeased if they didn’t.

I decided I and my family must not be living the gospel properly, so I doubled down: I made sure (my wife made sure, really) that we had family prayer every morning before I left for work at 6.30 am. I made sure my kids all attended seminary. I made sure we were all at church every single week without fail, even if we were away from home. I made sure my wife knew that our salvation as a family was hanging in the balance if she didn’t do her part to make our home a heaven on earth. She told me she needed some help; that the job was too big for her to do alone, but I didn’t dare spend more time at home – l had to fulfill my church and career obligations. We invited her mother to come live with us – to help out. She was elderly, but she was willing.

It  got worse instead of better.

Grandma was glad to have a place to live, but she struggled with the chaos of having a lot of kids and animals around. She didn’t have the energy to keep up with us, and we didn’t have the compassion to try to make her life with us pleasant. We (I) expected her to help us out; it turned out she needed help from us. It wasn’t long before dementia took hold and gradually disconnected her from her own life.

Our oldest child divorced the family and moved in with friends before high school graduation.

Our second child retreated to his bedroom until he was old enough to leave on a mission, and then he happily went. I thought it was because he wanted to go; turned out he just saw it as his best path for getting away from home as soon as possible.

Our third child left for BYU within hours after high school graduation and came home at the end of the semester engaged to someone from Utah. Same story: what looked like church devotion was really just quiet escape from tyranny.

Fourth child got a job, bought a motorcycle, and moved into an apartment with friends as soon as that high school diploma was in hand.

Fifth and sixth kids were … impossible. They felt abandoned by their older siblings. They were only interested in church as a social opportunity. They were deceptive, defiant, and belligerent.

Grandma needed more and more supervision; like Jeb’s mother, my mother-in-law would wander away from home, or leave something cooking on the stove until the pan dried and burned (the fire department showed up more than once). She became fearful and dangerous to herself and to us (she would go into the kitchen and brandish the butcher knife at anyone who came near her). Even though we knew that her condition would eventually kill her, we couldn’t wait it out; we had to place her in a memory care facility. She escaped from their supervision repeatedly; she just wanted to go home.

Nobody was happy. The promises of peace, prosperity, and joy were not manifesting in my life or the lives of my wife or my kids.

Still, we tried. My wife and I decided to volunteer as temple workers, and as family history specialists. We liked working with our Mormon friends, and genealogy was satisfying, but our own family wasn’t interested in being together in this life, much less in the next. Eventually we decided we wanted to serve a mission, thinking perhaps we would learn something we could use to pull our children back together, back to the church.

We went. We were appointed to the mission office, I for my managerial skills, and my wife for her secretarial skills. And we did learn. We learned a lot. One of the other senior missionaries was a retired psychologist. She and my wife spent many hours working together, and talking with each other while they worked. My wife came to understand that her own difficulties with finding happiness in her life likely stemmed from early trauma and from her repressed anger at having given up her own promising career to stay home and raise children. She was angry that she was considered inconsequential in the church, and in her own life. She was working so hard to earn the love of Jesus Christ, because she believed that he could not love her as she was.

Sometimes I talked with the psychologist, too, just to try to understand how my wife was feeling. I was sure I didn’t need to talk to her about anything in my own life.

My work in the mission office involved keeping track of finances. I learned that the mission president made most of his decisions based not on divine inspiration, but on how much a particular choice might cost as compared to other options. I learned that the mission president lived in very comfortable quarters funded by the church, while the senior missionaries were obliged to pay their own costs and live in whatever common housing could be secured, and the young elders and sisters were expected to live in the most economical (squalid) situations that met the bare minimum legal requirements. I learned that location and companionship assignments were made based on who needed to be “taught a lesson” or who was causing trouble or had committed some rules infraction. Inspiration had nothing to do with it. I learned that young missionaries who struggled with medical or mental health challenges were expected to tough it out rather than seek treatment, and that anyone who wanted to return home early was coerced, shamed, even threatened with church discipline if they didn’t get back to work. I learned that giving up years of my life to the church meant I was missing out on seeing grandchildren born, and grow, and spending time with them and with my kids. It meant I was missing out on time with my wife, who had stuck by me for so many years despite my callous indifference to her needs. I learned that I had a lot of learning and thinking and growing to do yet. I learned that I had been supporting a church that had hurt me and my family, and I had paid them to do it. I feel like Jeb in Under the Banner of Heaven is starting to see that he has been used as a tool in his own destruction. By the end of our time in the mission field, I felt the same way.

We finished our mission. We went back home. My wife and I stayed involved in genealogy work, because it let us keep our connections to our lifelong friends and find our connections to our ancestors, but we were done with any other church involvement beyond Sunday meetings. We were retired. We started doing things together, just us, and working with a therapist who helped us to learn how to communicate and show love for each other in meaningful ways. We gradually reconnected with each other and started to enjoy being together. We reconnected with our kids and grandkids. Half of them are out of the church. The other half are still in, more or less. The ones who are out seem happier to me. The ones who are still in seem like they are struggling. I hope they can find their way to joy. They don’t ask me for advice, or confide in me about their struggles, but I recognize the look of desperation that comes from having the threat of eternal damnation constantly hanging over your head.

I am a very old man now. I don’t know how my life would have been different if I had walked away from the church so many decades ago. I do know I will be much more careful going forward in this life and in my future life (yes – I do expect to have one) about who I trust with my money and my heart. I trust my wife. I trust some of my kids. I do not trust the LDS church, or any church, that presumes to tell me what I need to do to earn God’s love. I know I already have that, but it was a lesson that took me too long to learn. I hope for an eternal life and eternal progression so I can put all of this hard-won knowledge to work to help others who find themselves feeling betrayed by the church whose promises turned out to be empty.


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