Connolly on Talbot, 'A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture, 1852-1890'

Christine Talbot
Brian Connolly

Christine Talbot. A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture, 1852-1890. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013. pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03808-2; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07957-3; ISBN 978-0-252-09535-1.

Reviewed by Brian Connolly Published on H-SHGAPE (September, 2014) Commissioned by Julia Irwin

Mormonism and the Ends of Public and Private Spheres

In recent years, Mormonism has occasioned a veritable explosion of scholarship, both from historians of religion and others not solely identified with that subfield. One thinks not only of work by scholars of Mormonism like Jan Shipps, Teryl Givens, and Richard Bushman, but also legal scholars like Sarah Barringer Gordon, early Americanists like John Brooke, sexuality studies/queer theorists such as Peter Coviello, and recently invigorated interest in the Book of Mormon as a literary text. To say that Mormonism has become fertile ground for exploring most of the major tendencies of nineteenth-century American culture would be an understatement. At the same time, we are witnessing what we might call, with little imagination or exaggeration, the new familial studies: from theorizations of queer kinship by scholars like Elizabeth Freeman, Judith Butler, and Elizabeth Povinelli to recent reimaginings of family and marriage in the nineteenth century by scholars like Nancy Cott, Hendrik Hartog, Sarah Pearsall, and Nancy Bentley, the conjunction of family, kinship, and sexuality is being remade in exceedingly exciting and politically relevant ways.

Christine Talbot’s new book on Mormonism, polygamy, and American political culture needs to be situated in these growing bodies of literature (even if it does not always explicitly engage with them). In A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture, 1852-1890, Talbot situates the period of sanctioned Mormon polygamy, from Orson Pratt’s public announcement of the practice in 1852 to its ultimately ambiguous disavowal in the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890, in the context of the language and practice of separate spheres, or public and private, in the nineteenth-century United States. “The practice of plural marriage upset the distinction between public and private in a number of ways,” Talbot writes, “and the Mormons’ alternative family practices denaturalized middle-class constructions of family and citizenship. This … was at the root of the Mormon question” (p. 161). It is a convincing argument, not least because Talbot persuasively documents the ways in which Mormon theology collapsed the distinction between public and private, making civic life an effect of a universalized family of God, one that encompassed political and economic life as well as, obviously, familial and marital life.

Talbot’s decision to situate Mormon polygamy and anti-Mormon criticisms (which, as in other works on Mormonism, occupy a significant portion of the book) in the public-private divide is both a welcome engagement with a framework that has been, in some ways, unfairly maligned, and at times the signal problem of the book. As any scholar of women’s and gender history and/or nineteenth-century American history and culture knows well, separate spheres was one of the most important heuristics in which American culture, and especially middle-class, white women’s lives, were apprehended, beginning in full force in the 1970s with work by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Nancy Cott, and Linda Kerber (to name just a few of the most significant practitioners). By the middle of the 1980s, some of these scholars, as well as a younger generation, including Jeanne Boydston and Lori Ginzberg, began to offer new, compelling critiques of separate spheres, arguing that it was at best ideological, that it was rarely, if ever, a lived experience, and that it was mostly confined to the northeastern, white, middle class. By the mid 1990s one could find publications like the special issue of American Literature with incendiary titles like “No More Separate Spheres!” While other disciplines continued to write on and explore the private-public divide, especially in the wake of the translation of Jurgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere (1989), these tended to privilege, in line with Habermas, the public, rather than private sphere. While the critiques were frequently well aimed, one of the problematic effects was a decline in work engaging, in a critical manner, with public and private in nineteenth-century America.

Talbot wades into this context through Mormon polygamy, which, as she persuasively argues, was in part so controversial, and deemed so threatening precisely because it refused the distinction itself, a distinction that was, according to Talbot “central to the meaning of Americanness.” With reference to Brigham Young’s description of an ideal Mormon community in 1868, she writes: “Mormons attempted to unite the entire community under the rubric of family, dissolving the boundary between the private home and the world outside it. Moreover, by understanding this broad family organization as synonymous with the political kingdom of God, Mormons at once privatized politics and undercut the private individual that Americans placed at the center of good government” (p. 40). This captures, succinctly, the challenge of Mormonism to American political culture, and suggests that in refusing the public/private dichotomy, Mormons also refused the liberal individual as a model of selfhood. While this is implicit in Talbot’s book, it could have been brought further to the fore, especially as means to complicate the refusal of private versus public on which she focuses so insistently.

Talbot’s book is divided into two sections--the first three chapters “articulate the radicalism of the Mormon project with respect to the fundamental categories of American political thought becoming increasingly normative in middle-class political culture” (p. 15). In this section Talbot has chapters devoted to the “doctrinal place of polygamy” in the “fundamental theological turns” of early Mormonism, from the founding by Joseph Smith in 1830 through the move to Utah in the late 1840s; communitarian practices that resulted in “a kind of broad, privatized family they juxtaposed to a broader America ‘public’ polity and state” (p. 15); and the claims for women’s citizenship grounded in polygamy. The second part of the book “sorts out the ways in which anti-Mormon discourse manufactured knowledge about Mormonism, citizenship, and Americaness in the interest of holding in place the categories of public and private” (p. 16). Chapter 4 addresses domestic fiction; chapter 5 covers anti-Mormon links between polygamy and political theocracy; chapter 6 addresses anti-Mormon engagements with race and class, especially through Orientalism and eugenic accounts of European immigration; and chapter 7 follows the legal end of polygamy through the 1880s until its formal end in 1890.

There is much to admire here, not least a comprehensive account of Mormon polygamy encompassing both Mormon and anti-Mormon voices spread across theology and doctrinal texts, fiction, law, and political culture. Many of these topics have been addressed by other scholars, but in a limited manner--Nancy Cott, for instance, has addressed Mormon marriage in the context of a long history of the relationship between marriage and the nation; Sarah Barringer Gordon has addressed the “Mormon question” in the regard to constitutional law; and J. Spencer Flurhman has addressed anti-Mormonism. None of their works have quite the scope of Talbot’s book when it comes to the central issue of polygamy. Moreover, by focusing on polygamy, Talbot is able to nicely cover early Mormonism (1830s-40s) without being caught up in tracing the origins of either Joseph Smith or more broadly the prophetic aspects of the Second Great Awakening. Talbot is at her best in working through the political implications of Mormonism and anti-Mormonism--for instance, in the chapter on women’s citizenship (chapter 3), in which she documents the way in which this political order followed from the political vision of polygamy, and in the chapter on race, class, and metaphors of contagion (chapter 6) in anti-Mormon writings (although this reader was left wanting more in this chapter, which was so rich with potential but also the shortest chapter in the book).

In the end, Talbot has written an important book that both revives critical engagement with the public/private divide and expands our understanding of polygamy and Mormonism in nineteenth-century America. While one wishes that the public/private concerns were not always so totalizing--was every issue in Mormonism reducible to this problematic?--the book on the whole is a persuasive account of the centrality of Mormonism and polygamy to nineteenth-century politics and culture.


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Citation: Brian Connolly. Review of Talbot, Christine, A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture, 1852-1890. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. September, 2014. URL:

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