Year of Polygamy

Melody’s story

Bio: Melody is a descendant of pioneer Mormon polygamists. She has stepped away from the church but maintains close ties to the former-Mormon community. 

I just watched Episode 3 of Under the Banner of Heaven. As the tension in the story is ramping up, I notice I’m feeling it more intensely, too. Maybe that’s because today is the anniversary of the day I signed my life over to the Mormon church by agreeing to be married and sealed to my BYU-acquired fiancé. The look on Brenda’s face as she makes that throat-slitting motion while participating in her own endowment ceremony, trussed up in her white temple finery, is very much how I was feeling on the inside when I made those same motions myself all those years ago. Brenda was endowed a couple of years after I was. She and I would have made the exact same motions, accompanied by the exact same oaths. Those ritual oaths to let our blood be spilled, our lives taken (threats, really) weren’t modified in the temple ceremony until many years later.

I had so many unanswered questions. No one had told me what to expect because it was too sacred to discuss outside the temple itself; all they would tell me was that it was supposed to be the most amazing experience of my life. They weren’t wrong about that, but it wasn’t the kind of joyful amazing I had expected for what I thought was going to be my fairy tale wedding day. It was more like “what in the hell did I just make an oath to do, and why does anybody think this is ok?” and “Do they seriously think I would ever act on these oaths?” “Nah – they don’t do that stuff anymore, do they?” I really didn’t know. I didn’t know because nobody would talk about it, because the historical information wasn’t readily available. Internet archives and online social media weren’t a thing yet. I hoped it was just a relic of an ancient ceremony and that it would never matter that I had made those oaths.

Everyone – all my family and friends, many of whom had traveled long distances to be there on the big day, the temple workers, the sealing officiator – all seemed so happy to welcome me into the club, so I went along with the celebration. What other option was there? It’s not like I could undo the oaths and get the heck out – I was surrounded by people who were convinced I was exactly where I needed to be. I was literally boxed in. There was no way to get out without causing a scene, and I had been made to understand in no uncertain terms that causing a scene in the temple was not something I was allowed to do. I couldn’t see an exit sign anyway. Pretty sure that was intentional.

Over the next few days, with all the wedding hubbub, life was too busy to really take time to think about the rituals and promises I had been pressured into making, so I told myself it couldn’t be all that bad, could it? My biggest concern was that yes, it could. I knew enough church history to know that oaths of vengeance had been a real thing in church history. I didn’t know they were still part of the temple ceremony, though. And it was too late. The deed was done. I had repeated the oath and made the gestures. I had nodded my head and said yes. I couldn’t undo it (at least I had been led to believe I couldn’t), and I couldn’t live with that threat in my head all the time, so I buried it down deep where I didn’t have to deal with it. It stayed hidden for a while, and then – just as Jeb Pyre suggested to his wife – that bone started working its way up out of the dry desert floor of my soul.

It took ten years after the wedding for me to give myself permission to walk away from the church. I didn’t want to act impulsively. I didn’t want to hurt my parents. I had no intention of raising my children in the church, but I still felt a deep connection to much of what I had been taught. I believed in the message of Jesus. I wanted to believe that the church had just somehow lost its way and would self-correct. I watched and waited and waited. Nothing changed. My spouse and I mentally left the church at pretty much the same time, but for different reasons. He was bothered by the lies, by the manipulation of historical facts to build a palatable Mormon mythology. I was bothered by those things, too, and even more bothered by the reality that it didn’t matter what the church claimed historically; I as a woman in the church would never have any credibility or power. I was expected to always defer to my husband’s priesthood and to the authority of ordained leadership in all matters pertaining to the church and my own salvation. I was expected to support and participate in polygamy in the next life, even if we never practiced it again as a church in this life.

Ten years further down the road and my spouse was done not just with the church, but with me. He considered me baggage from his old Mormon life. He believed that he had married me out of a sense of duty, that he had been coerced into marrying the first girl who would have him, under the belief that any two fully committed people could find joy in a celestial marriage. He decided that was a concept that he was no longer willing to accommodate in his life, so he went looking for someone else who would make him happier. He did this without discussing it with me. He felt no obligation to me, regardless of the life we had built together, regardless of our children, regardless of the promises I thought we had made to each other the day we were married. 

When I confronted him about his infidelity, he sarcastically explained that our marriage vows had not included any vows of fidelity from him to me, and then acted like I was an idiot for not having understood that earlier. Conveniently enough, nobody had bothered to point out that fine detail to me at the time or any time since. He reminded me that in the eternities he would be expected to have multiple wives, so he was just starting early. He completely ignored the fact that he had abandoned the church for what I had been told were principled reasons. He found it very appealing to think about having another woman (or two or three) to make his current life more pleasant, and couldn’t understand why I would object. When I refused to give my consent to any arrangement that included another person in the marriage, or on the side, my spouse – who had always been inclined toward verbal and emotional abuse – became physically violent.

I was done. I filed for divorce and got a court order evicting him from the house. I never wanted a divorce. I would have stayed married to him forever, because that’s what I had promised to do. All that changed when he became a physical threat to me and our kids because, for once, I had stood up to him and refused to agree to his self-serving demands.

Everything I had worked for, believed, wanted, hoped for, had been tied up in the church, and it all came crashing down at the same time. Before I knew it my life upended completely. My parents were seriously ill, my siblings treated me as a pariah because I had gotten a divorce despite my temple marriage, I had to leave graduate school to try to make enough money to support myself and my kids. I cratered emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The priesthood-holding males in my family convened a family council (read: surprise kangaroo court) to let me know that I was not living up to expectations and they considered this a blatant rebellion on my part. My aging and ailing parents had already been disenfranchised by means of a hastily executed power of attorney, and now they were coming after me, too, to make sure I didn’t think I could get away with anything by extracting sympathy or support from my folks. I was told that I needed to repent and humble myself, find another husband, and get back to church before I got into any further trouble. No one seemed to care that my husband had cheated on me, abused me and my children, and left us with no visible means of support. My divorce and my situation was clearly all my fault because I had not been a good enough Mormon wife.

I lost my own family, despite my best efforts to stay connected with them. My siblings had essentially kicked me out because I didn’t follow the rules the way they thought I should. They thought I had broken the family.

Eventually I was able to reconnect with my parents and a couple of my siblings. The others are still lost to me. They invite each other to gatherings and events, but not me. I am a threat.

The church will occasionally send missionaries around. When they show up at my door, I tell them we can have a conversation, and for every question they ask me, I get to ask them one of my own. They’re confident they can bring me back into the fold until I ask them my first question: how many years do you think it will take you to figure out that you’re giving the church your time and money and it’s giving you grief and fear in return? They are always gone within minutes.

That’s the legacy of the Mormon church in my life. It demands time, money, loyalty, and devotion, and gives nothing back but grief and sorrow. It has stolen the lives from my ancestors for many generations now. It all stops here with me.


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