About a year ago, I stumbled upon a book of fiction. It was an interesting and engaging read. While reading this book, I recall feeling unsettled by the obvious parallels with my own belief system, its birth and early years, juxtaposed with the beginnings of the belief system described in the book. This was perhaps the first time in memory that I remember allowing my doubts to form and take shape in my consciousness. I began to question the nature and authenticity of religious movements and men claiming to be messengers of God.
The book was called “The 19th Wife” by David Ebershoff. It is part historical fiction interwoven with a modern-day suspense story. The book examines, in great detail, the early formation of the Mormon Church. It follows the life of Brigham Young’s rebellious wife, Ann Eliza, who fled the community and publicly renounced the church. Her story is interwoven with a modern-day murder mystery and the lives of several youth who were on the run from the treacherous and criminal cult leader of an LDS offshoot.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints began with the revelation given by an angel to Joseph Smith. Smith retired into the woods one day and asked God to give him a sign. This set into motion a series of visits and the subsequent bequeathment of a set of golden tablets which were written in a strange language that only Smith could understand. This was the Book of Mormon, given to Smith by the angel Moroni. This book was the account of ancient indigenous Americans and the visions of Jesus Christ they received. Smith managed to convert a small band of followers and as established a small community in Illinois. Smith was murdered or “martyred” while in prison and Brigham Young became his successor.
Brigham Young, like Smith was thought to be a prophet and his followers believed that he was guided directly by God. As the community began to grow in numbers, so did outside persecution and the early Mormons were forced to make an exodus to Utah. There, they set up a tight knit community, “brothers and sisters” in faith, shunning the outside world and it’s disbelievers, confident their way of life was superior and sanctioned by God.
Polygamy, as practiced by the early Mormons, was thought to be sanctioned by the Old Testament and was believed to be a duty of the faithful. The act was rewarded in the afterlife with greater bounty given in proportion to the more multitudinous perpetrators. Smith himself was married to at least 33 wives and Young had as many as 55.
I can’t help but draw parallels between the early accounts of the prophets, the book and the struggles of the early Mormons, to the those of Islam. To an ousider, the account sounds nothing short of ridiculous and yet followers of the faith view it as sacred. I was compelled to ask myself, how was my faith, it’s book and it’s Prophet any different? We have a man of no particular importance suddenly visited by an angel and receiving revelation. These revelations often conveniently changed or formed by events happening at the current time. Followers were persecuted and made hijrah. The same followers were sure their religion and way of life was the only way as commanded by God. After the death of the original prophet, men continued to be rightly guided by God and lay the foundation for the religion to survive the ages. Despite early obstacles, the faith and it’s book continues to live today. It’s adherents still view the book as holy and sacred and the early people of the religion as infallible and worthy of emulation.
While it took me longer to dismiss the prophethood of Muhammad, long after I rejected the divinity of the Quran, The 19th Wife planted an unmistakable seed in my mind. It was the first time I allowed myself to question. My eyes were opened. The thread was exposed and it all began to unravel.
The true story of the 19th wife as told by Ann Eliza Young can be found here.