Bryan Caplan  

Breaking Conformity Equilibria: The Case of Mormon Polygamy

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Polygamy was Mormonism's most controversial theological novelty.  Critics casually equated it with slavery, dubbing them "the twin relics of barbarism."  Whatever you think about the wisdom of polygamy, its emergence in 19th-century Mormonism raises a deeper question.  Given human conformity, how did such a radical break from social convention ever get off the ground?  John Turner's Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet provides an intriguing window into the sales process:

By April, Nauvoo buzzed with tales of adultery, "spiritual wifery," and apostasy. At the church's annual conference, Hyrum Smith felt obliged to contradict rumors " about Elders Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young, himself, and others of the Twelve, alleging that a sister had been shut in a room for several days, and that they had endeavored to induce her to believe in having two wives." The sister in question was Martha Brotherton.

While individuals often responded with disbelief and disgust when church leaders taught them the doctrine of celestial marriage or approached them about becoming plural wives, Brotherton was somewhat unusual in making her disillusionment with the church and its leaders a matter of public scandal. She did so because of John C. Bennett. The mercurial Bennett lost his church membership in June following allegations of his own sexual indiscretions, and he soon began assembling evidence he could use -- as one unsympathetic newspaper put it -- "to glut his revenge upon the Prophet." Bennett met with Brotherton in St. Louis, where the young woman and her parents had relocated, and persuaded her to detail her travails in a letter, a notarized copy of which was published in one of the city's newspapers and later included in Bennett's exposé of Mormon polygamy, political power, and sacred rituals.

In the affidavit, Brotherton stated that Young and Kimball persuaded her to meet with Joseph Smith in the upper room above Smith's store, the same room in which Young had officiated at two of Smith's plural weddings and in which he received his endowment. According to Brotherton, Smith and Kimball left her with Young, who then "arose, locked the door, closed the window, and drew the curtain" before asking her if she would marry him "were it lawful and right." Young then explained the prophet's teaching on the matter:

brother Joseph has had a revelation from God that it is lawful and right for a man to have two wives; for, as it was in the days of Abraham, so it shall be in these last days, and whoever is the first that is willing to take up the cross will receive the greatest blessings; and if you will accept of me, I will take you straight to the celestial kingdom; and if you will have me in this world, I will have you in that which is to come.


When Brotherton demurred, Young, after demanding a kiss, went to fetch Smith. According to Brotherton's affidavit, the prophet provided her with glib encouragement: "if you do not like it in a month or two, come to me, and I will make you free again; and if he [Young] turns you off, I will take you on." Young proceeded more cautiously and seriously, asking, "Did you ever see me act in any way wrong in England, Martha?" Brotherton begged for time to consider the proposal. She and her parents soon left Nauvoo, convinced that Smith and his apostles were "deceivers."

While this particular effort blew up in his face, Young was of course amazingly successful in the end.  He didn't just revolutionize Mormon family structure for six decades; he personally married fifty-five women and fathered fifty-nine children.  So let's break down the key components of his sales pitch.

1. Alpha status.  The supreme leader and his trusted lieutenants personally manage the persuasion.

2. Isolation. The would-be convert is physically separated from contrary influences by the believers. 

3. Slippery slope.  According to the account, Young leads with a hypothetical, "asking her if she would marry him 'were it lawful and right.'"  Once the hypothetical is on the table, he affirms the premise, invoking the teaching of the prophet.

4. Try and see for yourself.  After all this, the salesmen still don't expect a sudden conversion.  Instead, they urge Brotherton to try their proposal by emphasizing how readily she can back out.

My guess: The tactics of the Mormon inner circle well-tailored for their purpose.  But do they extend to non-conformity in general?  To take one pressing example: Could you use an analogous rhetorical steps to convince students to forego traditional brick-and-mortar college in favor of online learning?  I doubt it, but I'm curious.  Can our commitment to college really be more rigid than 19th-century Americans' commitment to monogamy?  Does society penalize educational non-conformity more than marital non-conformity?  Or what? 

COMMENTS (5 to date)
RPLong writes:

Prof. Caplan, what you've just described is textbook social manipulation as though it had been pulled directly out of the social psychology literature. I wanted to supply a direct link to some of the work Philip Zimbardo had done on this, but I find the URL in question may have expired (it was the accompanying website to his excellent book The Lucifer Effect). Suffice it to say that if one wanted to socially manipulate someone into doing something they desperately didn't want to do, the above list provides an excellent summary of how to do it.

Corporate lawyer writes:

You can only break conformity by setting up conditions for people to conform to something else. You can do that by the methods you outlined, or, as has been the preferred historical route, you can kill everyone that doesn't agree. This isn't that novel or insightful.

Steve Schow writes:

I was raised Mormon but am no longer a part of the church. I really need to read more of this stuff. The answer I always got as a kid (well, teenager...) was that polygamy was somewhat of a biological necessity due to the large number of men that died crossing the plains to Utah. The ratio of women to men made polygamy a kind of community effort to take care of women while repopulating the area. I've been parroting that reasoning even after leaving the church because it seemed practical, if not somewhat dishonest that the idea was "ordained by God".

I knew Joseph Smith had multiple wives but never put the timeline together that this all happened before the big push out West. Very interesting...

Matt writes:

Convincing someone to non-conform is easy. A group of families can practice polygamy without all of society changing.

This doesn't work with college. You can convince some people to not go, see the Theil Fellowship. But that doesn't change the incentives for signaling, on either the student or professors part

Peter Gerdes writes:

While humans are naturally conformist they also have very strong sexual drives to the point that homosexuality persisted in Victorian England.

I doubt the men who expected to receive multiple wives needed much manipulation to sell the proposal. They would have WANTED to believe it was God's will. Those men with power and authority (and perhaps all current members if the church was growing) could expect to gain more sexual partners (an strong innate male drive).

Another important consideration is the gender makeup of the early church. We know societies with an excess of women are strongly prone to polygamy. It's not uncommon for patriarchal cults to effectively drive away men when they reach maturity and present a possible challenge to the power structure. Besides, at the time men had a much greater ability to simply leave a bad situation.


Indeed, I would expect polygamy would be a fairly common practice in new cults for just these reasons.

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