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Polygamy among the Norwegian Mormons
    by Helge Seljaas (Volume 27: Page 151)

Currently popular “revisionist” history tends to ruin the heroes and demythicize the past; only rarely, however, are the villains vindicated or their sins diminished. One fertile field of study is Mormonism and the issue of polygamy as seen through both Scandinavian and American eyes. This is of special interest because the Mormon Church gained almost half of its converts in the last century from Scandinavia. The Latter-day Saints often generated a hysteria that swept from the simplest farming communities to the very highest centers of national and international life, a circumstance well reported by both the Scandinavian and American press.

Even today in Scandinavian the word “Mormon” has come to be almost synonymous with polygamy. Indeed, in the popular mind, Mormonism means only polygamy, and there is a common belief that its missionaries were simply agents sent out to lure gullible young girls away to Utah harems. This association with polygamy has been the main factor in making the religion an outcast sect in Scandinavia. The story of Olene Olsen of Solør is a case in point. Leaving the family farm, she went to Christiania to learn the sewing trade in 1865, joined the Mormons, and was planning to emigrate to Utah. Upon hearing of her intentions, her father rushed to the city to bring her back. When she refused to go home with him, he railed at her in the street, saying that the missionaries were a degenerate group from America whose only purpose was to get more wives like her. With slight variations, the same scene was repeated over and over; the father in each case was only expressing the popular sentiment. {1}

Social class and education seem to have made little difference in the attitudes of Norwegians. When Torkel Aarestad of Stavanger joined the Mormons and was planning to emigrate in 1882, his brother Sven, a well-known member of the Storting and later minister of agriculture, wrote him an urgent letter: “With your knowledge I cannot understand what you see in such twaddle as these Mormons teach. . . . If you had become a Catholic, Methodist or Baptist I could have given you my blessing . . . but these horrendous Mormons who do not deserve to be called Christians! It makes my hair stand on end. How could you vilify yourself, your wife and children and your entire family in such a manner?” Torkel’s father was no more sympathetic. His farewell message was: “I would rather see you dead than . . . united with that people.” {2}

The identification of Mormonism with polygamy was reinforced by the preponderance of females among converts and emigrants. There has been a greater percentage of women among the Mormon emigrants from Scandinavia than from other countries, with Norway in the lead. {3} A Swedish governmental study covering the years 1881-1903 reached the conclusion that this trend in Norwegian emigration was due to the more religious nature of women. {4} Another factor helps explain why females outnumbered males among Mormons from Norway. Leaving the homeland was relatively easy for single men, but difficult for unmarried women. The program of aided emigration devised by the Latter-day Saints appealed to women, who dreaded the journey and settlement in the New World. The missionaries, too, were an attraction in a society short of men because many were at sea and a large number had emigrated. For whatever reason, women have made up approximately sixty per cent of Mormon immigrants from Norway. When one considers only adults, the final percentage is more than sixty per cent, an amazingly high figure when compared with the dominantly male total migration from Norway. {5}

Polygamy was never stressed in Scandinavia by the Mormon missionaries. While the practice had apparently been introduced during the early 1840s at Nauvoo, Illinois, it had been done secretly and only by a handful of the most prominent leaders. The first official Mormon tract circulated by the Scandinavian Mission was Erastus Snow’s “En sandheds røst til de oprigtige af hjerte” (A Voice of Truth to the Honest in Heart). This publication stated belief in monogamy and admonished potential converts to obey the marriage laws of their country. Snow’s declaration remained in later editions despite Mormonism’s public admission of polygamy in 1852.

The question that arises is - how important was polygamy in the conversion and emigration of Scandinavians? The answer is that it had a negative effect on conversion; once a person had converted, however, that person was encouraged to emigrate by the anti-Mormon sentiment engendered by the practice. The instances of people joining the Church because of polygamy are very rare. Actually plural marriage was never one of the most central doctrines among the Latter-day Saints, and only a minority of them practiced it. It is only in the present century that there has been an excess of women in Zion. In 1850 there were 1,104 foreign-born males and 946 foreign-born females in Utah Territory. By 1870 the numbers had increased to 28,994 and 27,090, respectively. By 1870 the female percentage had increased to 49.2, only to decline to 46.9 by 1890. Belief in the family and marriage was strong among the Mormons. There was never a large number of unmarried men, and so there never were enough women to fill very many harems. {6}

From the very beginning, the missionaries were warned against becoming too familiar with the women. They were to concentrate on conversion and to put off all thought of marriage until their return. In 1853 Willard Snow, who had followed his brother as mission president, bluntly told the missionaries to “keep their heads out from under the petticoats.” {7} A not inconsiderable number of young women nevertheless married the missionaries who had converted them. This is understandable, as it was natural and quite common for a strong bond to develop between a missionary and his convert. When both were young and eligible, it was almost inevitable that their thoughts should turn to marriage. Matrimony during the mission was allowed in only a few isolated cases, but often the ceremony took place on the ship returning to the States. For engaged couples, such marriages were encouraged, “considering the long journey before them.” On the sailing ship Westmoreland in 1857, three Norwegian girls were married to returning missionaries. {8}

Peter Olsen Hansen, the first missionary to set foot in Scandinavia, lost little time in marrying a Danish girl. After she had borne him a child, he sent her and the baby to Utah to be placed under the protection of Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young’s counselor and Hansen’s adoptive father. Hansen later wrote to Kimball asking permission to marry a Miss Fjelstad, the daughter of the gaolkeeper in Fredrikstad, who had been sent to Copenhagen by her father to get her away from the missionaries constantly being housed in his facilities. Hansen explained to Kimball that “being free and open hearted like a Norwegian girl generally is . . . she asked me . . . if she might live with me and my wife, and when she learned of the principle of plurality of wives then she rejoiced and acknowledged that she would like to be my wife.” Apparently Kimball did not then reply favorably, for two years later, while working as a cowboy on Antelope Island in Great Salt Lake, Hansen again wrote asking permission to marry Miss Fjelstad so as not to “have that vacancy in my happiness which I have without her.” {9}

Concerning the Fredrikstad jail, another missionary has written: “The old prison in Fredrikstad which had sheltered so many of our good brethren for the gospel’s sake was now opened for me. In my cell I found the names of J. F. Dorius, J. C. Larsen, J. A. Hansen, Chas. Wideborg and others. I had the same old warden who had watched and cared for them. All his girls except one sweet-dispositioned and kind-hearted lady were grown and had left him. She bestowed every kindness that she could. . . . She opened the cell and turned her face away while they came in and unloaded their gifts of eatables under the blankets of my bed. I suffered very little and the sweet smiles and tender words of that young lady lightened my burden.” {10}

Hansen’s experience was not typical. Very few Saints made the move to take additional wives on their own. Usually they had to be strongly admonished that, for the sake of their eternal salvation, it was necessary for them to take another wife or two. To comply was usually a bitter pill, as it went against the early training and belief of most of the members. Plural marriages generally occurred during periods of stress within the society, when intense revivalist activity occurred or when there was a menace from without. Left alone, the members were prone to ignore polygamy, and it always took some form of pressure to stir them to renewed zeal for the practice.

Oluf Larsen, who as a young man had been one of the first to join the Church at Drammen, was one of those who felt the pressure from his leaders to take additional wives. He explained in his memoirs that, after he and his first wife had given it much consideration, “we finally concluded it would not be right to shrink from the duty any longer. My wife conveyed the idea to a girl working for us by the name of Amalia Anderson.” According to Larsen, the three of them “lived together in the same house, ate at the same table and had peace and happiness in our family - even more than I had anticipated.” His bishop later asked him to marry for a third time, which he did despite the fact that he “had not thought of marrying again any more.” {11}

It often seemed that the women were more anxious to enter into polygamous marriages than the men. When Goudy Hogan (Gudmund Haugaas, who had been part of the group which emigrated from Tinn in 1837) first decided to take a wife, he had a hard time deciding between two sisters from Denmark. When he finally chose the younger of the two, the elder became very jealous. She agreed, however, to accompany the others to the endowment house at Salt Lake City as a chaperon. Upon arrival, the elder sister proposed that Goudy marry both of them, which he did, the elder becoming his first wife. A few years later, he married their younger sister. {12}

There was indeed some truth to Mark Twain’s comment in Roughing It: “An elder, or a bishop, married a girl - likes her, married her sister - likes her, married another sister. . . “ {13} Two sisters, Harriet and Ellen Sanders (Helga and Aagaata Ystensdatter, who had come from Tinn in the same group as Goudy in 1837) both married Heber C. Kimball. Kimball married forty-five women, including five pairs of sisters. Ten per cent of polygamous men were married to one or more pairs of sisters. {14}

It is only natural that a Mormon in a plural marriage should prefer one wife over the others. A story is told of a man who treated each of his wives fairly “and received citation after citation as a perfect example. One of his two wives died. She had been buried but a short time when the other one died. Carefully the husband laid the second wife away in the cemetery lot with a space between the two for his own remains. Then the husband became sick and lay near death. Bishop Peterson sat by the bed and watched the old man sink lower and lower. With time rapidly running out the Bishop said ‘Jim, be dare any vish you might vish?’ ‘Youst von ting,’ the man whispered, ‘yen you lay me avay, tilt me joust a leetle toward Tilly.’" {15}

Those who practiced polygamy were always in a minority. At the height of the existence of plural marriages (approximately 1880), polygamous families may have made up as much as fifteen or possibly twenty per cent of the Mormon families of Utah. Among the Scandinavians the percentage was somewhat below the average. In Ephraim, Utah, in 1880 there were 240 Scandinavian heads of families; of these, 24 or 10 per cent were polygamous, involving 52 wives. Of 38 Norwegian heads of families, four were polygamous, involving eight Scandinavian women. Of the men listed in the History of Sanpete and Emery Counties, both Scandinavian centers, 12.6 per cent were polygamists. The most common number of plural wives was two, just enough to be obedient to the admonitions of the Church leaders. The most married Scandinavian, Jens Hansen from Denmark, did, however, have 14 wives. {16}

The men who took additional wives were relatively young. Very few continued marrying after middle age, and the popular picture of a doddering old patriarch surrounded by young wives is a false one. The average age at which a group of 1,229 polygamists ceased marrying was forty. {17}

How successful were these polygamous marriages? Additional wives in a household certainly added to the domestic strain. If economically possible, each wife was provided with a separate house - a practice which helped considerably. The many older, identical houses built side by side in Salt Lake City are a tribute to the attempt to make polygamy work. Since Mormons believed that polygamy was God’s will, every effort was made to make successes of such marriages. But that there were problems is attested to by no less a person than Brigham Young, who said that polygamy would “send thousands to hell.” Whatever the situation may have been in Utah, however, the picture painted in the press around the world was almost totally erroneous. Emigranten, a Middle Western Norwegian-language newspaper, pictured polygamy as worse than slavery. One story printed in 1856 actually told of a market in which, because of the money shortage, women were bartered off in exchange for produce. {18} The truth seems to be that the system worked better than one would have expected and that Scandinavians did better than most. Indeed, Scandinavian women were sought out because it was felt that they got along well with other wives. {19}

Olene Olsen, referred to earlier, was a bride of three months when her husband, Christopher Kempe, informed her that the authorities had instructed him to take a second wife. She thought the arrangement more than she could bear. Nevertheless, her husband married Anna Johanson from Kragerø, and - to Olene’s great surprise - she and Anna soon became dearest friends, “learning to work together, laugh together, always sharing one another’s sorrows.” {20}

It was pressure from the United States government that caused the Church to give up the practice of plural marriages, but it was given up with a sigh of relief by the majority of the members. When the antipolygamy campaign by the government was intensified during the 1880s, the Scandinavians had to suffer along with other Mormons. Over two hundred Scandinavian men served time in federal penitentiaries for their polygamous activities. One of them was Oluf Larsen. He had been imprisoned at Fredrikstad and Drammen “for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and baptizing people into the Church.” He further explained: “I little dreamed that I would be imprisoned in this glorious Republic of America for obeying and practicing the religious doctrine of my church which is sanctioned by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of old. . . . From this magnificent government I have been incarcerated behind iron bars and as a criminal convict guarded by men with loaded guns.” {21}

Another convert from Drammen, the shoemaker Christoffer S. Winge, was somewhat less bitter about his incarceration. He felt that he had “never been in the company of better men.” He added hopefully in a letter to a Mormon newspaper: “Those who have a little money can buy milk, butter and sugar, which makes life quite pleasant. But as you know, my pockets have never been full. . . . One dollar per month would pay for a daily pint of milk, which is enough.” {22}

As persecution increased, it became quite difficult to contract plural marriages. Torkel Aarestad had to travel to Mexico in order to marry his third wife in 1889. {23} Governmental pressure mounted until, in 1890, the leaders issued their famous “Manifesto,” which stated that the Church would no longer sanction polygamous marriage. Plural marriages, however, were not brought to an official end until the adoption of a resolution by the seventy-fourth annual conference of the Latter-day Saints on April 4, 1904. Some within the Church refused to accept this position as being the will of God; as a result, splinter groups - which continue to practice polygamy - broke off from the main body of the Mormons. When cases of polygamy are brought to the attention of Church authorities, those involved are excommunicated. Thus in 1972 one of the immigrants who had arrived from Norway in 1948 was excommunicated.

For most of the Scandinavian Mormons, the termination of the practice of polygamy brought a feeling of relief. The institution had been an embarrassment to them and had played very little, if any, positive role in their conversion. It had actually been a negative factor in that it had prevented many from converting who otherwise would have done so. Once having joined the Mormons, however, the anti-Mormon feeling generated by polygamy was a factor in inducing emigration. After arriving in Zion, they accepted the practice reluctantly; few took additional wives unless pressured by Church leaders to do so. Those who did, usually married only two wives, just enough to be obedient.

One may well speculate why this rather innocuous practice caused an uproar among those whom it did not affect. Polygamy is, of course, a subject that can stir the imagination, start daydreams rolling, bring to mind exotic, Eastern cultures, and create a little excitement in a drab life. Travelers like Julie Ingerøed, who visited Utah during the 1860s, and Pastor Andreas Mortensen, who was there during the 1880s, came back to Scandinavia and immediately set out on the lecture circuit, drawing large crowds at every stop. Their anti-Mormon lectures were able to stir audiences as no other subject could. After one of Mrs. Ingerøed’s lectures in Copenhagen in 1867, the local population was aroused to such anti-Mormon frenzy that the missionaries there had to appeal to the American minister for protection from mobs. {24}

It is not unusual to create an external enemy in order to foster internal unity, a tactic to which Mormonism has been subjected several times. During the 1850s, for example, Mormonism became the object of attack by the United States government largely in order to divert attention from the real problem facing the nation: the question of slavery and the growing gap between North and South. In like manner, Mormonism, particularly polygamy, became a favorite subject of discussion in Scandinavia because it diverted attention from local problems of poverty and inequality. One may well wonder at the horror expressed concerning marriage customs in Utah when criticism might better have been directed at the lower classes in Northern Europe, who quite commonly never bothered to marry at all. Nowadays, with our greater toleration for diverse life styles, it all seems to have been “much ado about nothing.”


<1> Ellen Greer Rees, “History of the Christopher J. Kempe Family,” a typescript, 1961. A copy is in the Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City.

<2> “Torkel E. Torkelson Autobiography,” a manuscript in the Church Historian’s Library, Salt Lake City. In the “Emigration Records of the Scandinavian Mission,” also kept in the Church Historian’s Library, Torkel is listed as Torkel Aarestad, thirty years old. He, like so many others, had replaced his farm name with a patronymic form. This was probably done because the patronymics are much easier for Americans to spell and pronounce.

<3> Kenneth O. Bjork has pointed out that “repeatedly the Norwegian newspapers, like the English-language organs before them, noted and, because of polygamy in Utah, exaggerated the number of women among the emigrants.” See his West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast, 1848-1893, 126 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1958).

<4> Gustav Sundbärg, Mormonvärfningen i Sverige, 50 (Stockholm, 1910), cited in William Mulder, Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia, 109 (Minneapolis, 1957).

<5> The percentage of women among the Mormons from Norway is derived from various records and publications kept at the Church Historian’s Library.

<6> See the population figures in the ninth (1870) and the eleventh (1890) U.S. Census reports.

<7> Willard Snow Journal, February 6, 1853, quoted in Mulder, Homeward to Zion, 49.

<8> Ellen Rolfsen, 19, married Carl C. N. Dorius, Karen Frantzen, 21, married John F. Dorius (Carl’s brother), and Eliza Haarby, 21, married C. C. A. Christiansen. This information is taken from Andrew Jensen, History of the Scandinavian Mission, 120-121 (Salt Lake City, 1927), and from the “Emigration Records of the Scandinavian Mission,” in the Church Historian’s Library.

<9> The two letters from Hansen to Kimball are preserved in the Winslow Kimball Smith Collection, in the Church Historian’s Library. The first is dated “Skandinavia’s Star office, Copenhagen, 25 September 1853” and the second, “Antelope Island, October, 1855.”

<10> See Oluf Larsen, “A Biographical Sketch of the Life of Oluf Christian Larsen, Dictated by Himself and Written by His Son, Oluf Larsen,” a typescript, in the Church Historian’s Library.

<11> Larsen, “A Biographical Sketch.”

<12> Goudy E. Hogan, “Journal-Autobiography (1837-1890).” A microfilm copy is in the Utah State Historical Society.

<13> Mark Twain, Roughing It, 122-127 (New York, 1871). In the same volume, Twain relates the story of how Brigham Young foolishly gave wife No. 6 a breast pin and ended up paying out $2,500 by the time he had done the same for each of the others. “And these creatures will compare these pins together, and if one is a shade finer than the rest, they will all be thrown on my hands, and I will have to order a new lot to keep peace in my family.”

<14> Stanley S. Ivins, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy,” in Utah Historical Quarterly, 35:313 (Fall, 1967).

<15> Thomas E. Cheney, “Scandinavian Immigrant Stories,” in Western Folklore, 18:104 (April 1859).

<16> Mulder, 240; Andrew Jensen, LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, 2:360- 361 (Salt Lake City, 1914).

<17> Ivins, in Utah Historical Quarterly, 35:313.

<18> Journal of Discourses, 9:269 (Liverpool, 26 vols., 1854-1868); Bjork, West of the Great Divide, 266.

<19> This judgment was given the author by an elderly neighbor who, as a young girl, had visited many polygamous homes.

<20> Rees,” History of the Christopher J. Kempe Family.” Later in Olene’s time of greatest grief, when her two sons, Otto, 13, and Eugene, 11, died suddenly of diphtheria, it was Anna who overcame great obstacles to get to her side to comfort her. Anna traveled through a blizzard until the wagon could go no farther, and then she got on one of the horses and rode bareback the rest of the way to Concho, Arizona, where she could take charge of the grief-stricken mother and sew white burial suits for the boys.

<21> Larsen, “A Biographical Sketch.” An account of Larsen’s stay in the Drammen jail is given in Jenson’s History of the Scandinavian Mission, 138.

<22> “Fra Fengslet,” in Bikuben, September 13, 1888. There is a biography of Winge in Morgenstjernen, 4:135-137 (1885). Bikuben was a Danish-Norwegian weekly (1876-1935), and Morgenstjernen was a Danish monthly (1882-1885) valuable for its biographies of Scandinavian immigrants to Utah. Both are available in the Church Historian’s Library.

<23> “Torkel E. Torkelson Autobiography.”

<24> Hans Jensen Hals, “Autobiography,” in Morgenstjernen, 3:219-220 (1884). Both Ingerøed and Mortensen wrote books about their experiences among the Mormons. See Ingerøed, Et aar i Utah eller Mormonismens hemmeligheder (Chicago, 1867) and Mortensen, Blandt Mormonerne (Kristiania, 1887).

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