Posted by: nflanders | January 9, 2006

Does Polygamous Ancestry Help You Believe?

Like most Americans with no discernible ethnicity, I hunger after any knowledge of my ancestors. I think we envy those who can say, “I’m Italian” or “My grandparents came over from Slovakia.” Oh, to have such interesting forebears!

My family line on my mother’s side is murky. So murky that all I know is that my mother’s maiden name might be from Wales. Otherwise, that side of the family tree is just a melange of WASPy, white-bread names. On the other hand, my grandmother on my father’s side supposedly did extensive genealogical research (though I’ve never seen it). From this alleged research, I know that my great-great-great…(I forget how many greats)…grandfather came over to America from Scotland and that is where my surname comes from.

On the basis of this slender belief, I buy books like How the Scots Invented the Modern World; I daydreamedly browse through the inevitable picture books of the Scottish countryside in Barnes and Noble (why are there always so many picture books of Scotland, by the way?); and I even own a tie the color of my surname’s tartan.

The odds that I am even one-sixteenth or one-thirty-second Scottish are not very good, yet still I am fascinated by my possible ancestors. I want to know more about them and understand their lives. There’s a good chance I am at least an eighth or even a quarter German. For some reason, my German ancestry doesn’t have quite the same romantic pull as the Scottish, but I still want to know where my German forebears came from and when and why they emigrated.

I think this is highly relevant to many discussions of Mormonism. My mother is a convert and my father converted with his family when he was very young. My Mormon ancestry dates all the way back to the 1950’s. That’s it. I have little empathy for or understanding of the strange pioneer families with four or five wives. I simply can’t relate: those aren’t my people. My people were dirt farmers or city dwellers during this era. They weren’t trekking across the country for what might seem to me to be a suspect reason. This might explain why, when I went on Pioneer Trek as young man, all I got was blistered and malnourished, instead of inspired.

I know from various discussions that several members of the bloggernacle are descendents of pioneers and polygamists. I think I understand how they can reconcile their feelings towards early Mormons and polygamy while I find the practice extremely off-putting and creepy. For them, it’s their tartan kilt. They wouldn’t be here without it. It’s hard to condemn something that would erase your very existence.

I also can’t help but wonder if my lack of Mormon roots makes it easier for me to abandon my faith. It’s not like I’m letting down five generations of Flanders; would I feel the same way if one of my ancestors had been killed by a mob?

I don’t honestly know how I’d feel about polygamists if I had polygamous ancestry, but I’d probably be less critical. Let’s be honest: even though I’m not in the same pickle as Australians (sorry, Aussies!), my ancestors were likely the dregs of European society. If they weren’t, they never would have come to America. Nevertheless, I romanticize their lives and their legacy, even though they were probably drunks, tramps, and thieves. Never mind that, I’m late for my bagpipe lesson!



  1. Ok, I’ll admit to polygamous ancestry. My great-gradfather was a polygamist in a mormon colony in Mexico. Apparently he treated his first family better than the others. My great-grandmother eventually got tired of it, changed the spelling of their last name, and moved the kids to southern Utah. This cause a generation plus of complete inactivity among the children. So in this case it wasn’t helpful. On the other hand I have never thought of polygamy as that big of a deal. It’s just a thing ya know? Perhaps this comes with a little familiarity.

    I also had an ancestor that was killed at the Hauns Mill masacre. On my mothers line we go all the way back to Nauvoo. It makes some of the history stories a little more interesting. However, I have two sisters who are completely inactive so ultimately I don’t think it helps all that much.

    So, have you tried dropping by a family history center? They may be able to help you find out more.

  2. I think you’re spot one, Ned. I think it would be hard to walk away from something for which your ancestors suffered (and maybe even died). I sometimes wonder whether my ancestors were the ones who threw stones at Wilford Woodruff down the road from where I grew up!

  3. I have non-Mormon ancestors who lived in Palmyra the same time Joseph Smith did. That makes me wonder about all sorts of things.

    But the main thing that cracks me up about my ancestors is learning my family’s always been full of nutcases.

  4. It is, on some level, a matter of ethnicity. I feel ethnicly Mormon. Now, I know plenty of ethnic Mormons who are secular (much like secular jews). I think understanding the history and being tied to it does foster an atmosphere of empathy and compassion, but it doesn’t necesarrily require faith (though it has helped mine).

  5. My ancestors, upon hearing that the Mormons (while travelling through to the west) were camping in their county, decided to join a group to encourage them to keep moving. When the mob got to the camp, they instead took pity on the plight of the saints. They rode back home, gathered supplies, and returned to bless those they had planned to harrass.

    My stepfather was a bigamist. Does that count?

  6. Have done the genealogy on both sides of the family. Easy because hillbilly ancestors found the mountains to their liking and stayed there. Many Orangemen (Scots-Irish), no polygamists, no Mormons, a few notorious drunks, an occasional love child, one maker of great single malt scotch.

    I stand by my principle that, if you had anything going for yourself in the Old Country, you sure didn’t pack up and come here.

    Bookmarked this blog for further reading!

  7. Susan M.,

    I have ancestors in Palmyra about that time, too. Maybe we’re related, how scary is that? For you, I mean.

  8. There are many descendants of polygamists in the DAMU. Bob McCue would be one.

    One of the effects of the Internet on Mormonism is that even children of entrenched Mormon families have access to information that they would not have encountered earlier.

    On the various message boards, there are always a dozen people that claim to be fifth, sixth and seventh generation Mormons. Of course, one shouldn’t believe everything that folks say on the web. 🙂

  9. I doubt it helps directly to have an ancestry in the church. In my case, I am descended from a polygamous man and his third wife, and I relate to Ned’s story of leaving the church (isn’t if funny that we don’t really believe but still have to keep blogging about mormonism?). On the other hand, my family has the diary of my great-…grandpa and it contains some powerful witnesses he received of the truth of the gospel. Since it is in the family, it does make me feel more connected to his experiences. I just wish we also had the diary of my great-…grandmother to see her side of the story.

    It is rather fun to have racy things like polygamy in your history.

  10. On my father’s paternal line the Mormon heritage extends back to the pioneers; Ironicly, non of them were practicing polygamist. No, they did it the old fashioned way, waited for the current wife to die of fever, or small pox, or something like that, then remarry. What happened is that that side of the family converted to Mormonism in Scotland and decided to move to the US and do the whole trek thing. My Father’s paternal line all came from different parts of England in the 19th and 18th centuries and converted during the turn of the 20th century. My Mothers paternal side were Germans living along the Volga in Russia for hundreds of years. They moved to the united states during the Russian Revelation and didn’t convert to Mormonism until the 1950’s. My mother’s maternal line converted in England in the 1920’s and move to Utah. It gets a little more scattered then that, but I can say with assurance I am 75% British (Scottish included) and 25% German. So I am not as much of a mutt like most Americans; However, the British are mutts themselves (mixture between Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Roman, French, Danish, Scandinavian – more concentrations of one over the others depending upon region). I am an Anlgo-Saxon Mother’s Son. As was mentioned, some would thing having some deep Mormon heritage on my paternal line would have made it hard for me to leave the church as abruptly as I had, but it didn’t. There are no ethnic Mormons, clinically speaking, an ethnicity involves a biological similarity within in a ‘Race’. Since the Mormon church is so new, as apposed to being Ethnic Jew, There hasn’t been time for evolution to fabricate a common Mormon gene, and given the rate of expansion of the church through prostelization, their probably will never be one. However there are defenetly Cultural Mormons. They way I see it is that the Church convinced my recent ancestors to abandon the semi-ethnic British culture for the new Mormon culture. In response to this feeling I have become fascinated by my prominently British Heritage and like to revive some of those traditions from the various parts of Great Britain I can trace my ancestry to. Beyond that, going back thousands of years, (though I have no geniological record dating past the 14th century.) many of these traditions have their roots before Christianity. It is interesting that the many years I have separated my self from the Mormon church I still take some interest and pride in my heritage – of which I have to admit is a result of Mormon Culture. If I wasn’t raised Mormon, or in a culture that valued geniology the way Mormons do, I doubt I would have gone to the effort to discover and preserve my British heritage.

  11. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to me one way or the other.

    Now I’m going to go read your true life confessions.

  12. I’m a convert, the closest I come to polygamous ancestry is the bought of possible incest that may have occurred when my Family hooked up with the Cecil’s shortly after their arrival in America with Lord Baltimore. I do take pride in my 1/128th Native American Blood that runs through my veins, and in the fact that there is a high probability that my greatX16 grandfather was probably a slave (endentured servent) It makes me feel more connected with people who aren’t white for some reason, and I like that. On the otherhand, I completely trsut Joseph Smith and the teachings of the Church, and I have no polygamous ancestry. Polygamy isn’t an issue because I believe, not the other way around.

  13. I really enjoyed your thoughts, Ned.

    My family is tied to polygamy through Brigham Young and naturally this has always been a source of pride (ignorant pride)…but it’s not lost on me that BY is only one of my many ancestors, most of which were not polygamous…I suspect the same is true for most multi-generational mormons.

    I also have Scottish ancestry (naturally on the more rebellious side of my family), and Swedish, and Norwegian, and English, and Navaho.

    I’m aware of part of the Swedish immigrant’s story; a convert who left wife and two daughters in Sweden to flee to Zion…where he met and married my g-g-grandmother and had children “in the covenant”. He traveled back to Sweden on two separate missions, each time seeing the family he abandon there…but she had married another and gone on with her life.

    This story has always struck me as odd…though I’m sure that from a certain perspective this man could be congratulated for choosing god over family (among the “I’ve come to divide” crowd)…but it really bothers me that any church could divide people or encourage them to think in terms of leaving others behind…in this life or the next.

    Thanks for your post. It got me thinking.

  14. Having multiple polygamist ancestors just makes everything more confusing for me….I hate polygamy so much that it literally fills me with rage; yet, without it I wouldn’t be here experiencing this rage. So, no, Ned, I don’t think I have it easier than you. At least you don’t have underlying self-loathing as part of your make-up. 🙂


  15. …and the thought that meant to share but forgot:

    I take a great deal of pleasure in remembering that just a few brief generations back, _all_ of my ancestors were non-mormon…Joseph Smith was non-mormon…Brigham Young was a reluctant and (dare I say) skeptical non-mormon…

    It’s just a matter of perspective to see that my decision to leave or stay among the mormons is as much mine as theirs was…and given sufficient evidence, their decisions can be undone by mine and in the great expanse if human history it would be nothing more than a crease in the fabric.

  16. Oprimí “juguete rabioso” en mi profile y vine a dar a estos lares. ¿Lo leíste en castellano? De ser así, qué barroco y qué buen swing. Si no lo leíste en castellano, entonces no entenderás nadita de lo que escribo.

  17. mark iv, when I get home I’ll check what the names of my ancestors were there.

    If you knew what my family is like, I think you’d be the scared one.

  18. Of course it helps. My own line on my mother’s side includes Aaron Johnsen, founder of Springville, UT and proud husband of 23 (at least, I think it was 23 …).

    So it’s all settled. I’m Mormon, and that’s that! Boy what a load off my mind! It’s so much easier to stick with a religion when you feel like you don’t have a viable choice in the matter.

    I guess that’s not entirely accurate. I could apostatize … But then I’d have to go through life with a vaguely unsettled feeling. Kinda like when you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve left your car door open in the Wal Mart parking lot.

    And who needs that kind of grief?

    Seth R.

  19. “They moved to the united states during the Russian Revelation… “

    Which prophet received that revelation?

  20. Bookslinger– Rasputin, obviously.

    Wow, thanks for all the great responses. It seems that polygamous ancestry can cut both ways. Let’s just say that I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it, or any relation to the founder of Shelbyville. Otherwise, I might end up in the same boat as Maria.

    Also, it seems that everyone has at least one interesting family story. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any Flanders family anecdotes. Perhaps this too contributes to my thirst for information about my ancestors.

    I’ve tried to research a bit on FamilySearch but I was very unimpressed by the quality of the information. They had my great-grandma’s death date wrong by 15 years or so and 8 states away.

    I happened to click on a random family tree and it went back to the 1200s. I was very jealous.

  21. Well once you tie into some royalty you can go all the way back to Charlemagne. (I have. I’m a descendant of Edward Longshanks! You know, the evil king in Braveheart.)

    I haven’t done any online research in awhile, but the best site I found was this one:

    It’s just research other people have done that you download, so it’s not always accurate, but you can usually piece things together pretty well.

  22. Susan: “I’m a descendant of Edward Longshanks!”

    Hey, me too! In fact, that’s where my and my husband’s lines meet up.

  23. Well once you tie into some royalty you can go all the way back to Charlemagne.

    If Chlodwig had not converted to Catholicism then you guys could trace your ancestors all the way to Asgard.

  24. Oh, so now if we discover we had polygamous ancestors, we must find some way to live it down. 😦

    I don’t care which way the popular wind blows on this. My mothers great grandfather Peter Barton went to prison because he was sealed to two wives. This is not just my heritage. You live in the same world and the same country.

    My mother has said that her parents knew about the polygamy in their family history, but when asked about it, they denied it. She found a photo of Peter Barton at the Sugarhouse prison from 1885, but her mother told her that was not her grandfather. And so on, for Mormons that are supposed to be proud about their ancestors in the early restoration.

    As I watch the confirmation hearings this week, I can easily imagine how the US people were fooled into persecuting the Mormons. How easily it could happen again. There is such a persistent irrational undercurrent of hateful negative feelings about this issue.

  25. That’s a fascinating childhood story, Jcobabe. Thanks for sharing it.

    I don’t know if one needs to assume that folks who opposed polygamy and Mormonism were manipulated. The historical record indicates that violence, manipulation and other manifestations of domination were part and parcel of polygamy.

    Beyond polygamy, in light of how outsiders were treated in Deseret and Utah, it is clear that early Mormonism was hardly a free society. We might have been saved from ourselves when the federal government insisted that the Bill of Rights applies in Utah.

    The last time, the American people turned against Mormonism, the issue was civil rights. They were right and we were wrong. I am troubled that the LDS leadership continues to teach that we have to pursue our interests at the expense of a minority.

    In the past and in the present, concern is a reasonable response to Mormon policies. The first step to change that is to take responsibility for our actions, especially those that threaten the rights of non-Mormons and dissidents.

  26. Congratulations, Ned! You’ve been selected to appear in the debut of Bloggernaccle Theater.

  27. My polygamous ancestors do not make me feel more Mormon, but they may make me more sympethetic to a situation I really cannot understand (choosing to be polygamous).

  28. As a sixth generation member and a direct descendant of Heber C Kimball, I have to say I do think it makes a difference. Although I know I wouldn’t be here if not for polygamy, I absolutely don’t believe it was ever ordained by God. I recognize it only as the means that got me here.

    Because of my ancestry, it does seem hard to just walk away. I fee like I owe it to those who sacrificed in the past to at least try to make it work now. There’s also the family pride thing and the whole “live up to your name” thing. Most days I pride my self on being a bit more like J. Golden.

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