Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen has recently responded to media confusion – to put it courteously – falsely equating the historic LDS practice of plural marriage with the modern FLDS practice of plural marriage. Correcting the assertion that arranging marriages of (presumably) young brides to (presumably) much older husbands, against the desires and inclinations of bride and/or groom, was a practice of the 19th century Latter-day Saints, he says:
Unlike the contemporary practice of polygamy in Eldorado, Texas, 19th century plural marriage among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not controlled by the arbitrary authority of one individual. On the contrary, decisions related to marriage were settled by consideration of the feelings of all interested parties. furthermore, the consent of individual women was always honored in any marriage proposal. Though there was some social and cultural pressure, it was not determinative. both men and women were free to refuse offers of marriage they found unacceptable.
As an illustration in support of Elder Jensen’s statement, I offer the case of Daniel Olsen and Delilah King.
Daniel Olsen was a convert who emigrated to Deseret in the mid-1850s. He was a skilled violin player, much in demand for dances and entertainments in Utah – but such engagements provided a very meager income for a young man who desired to marry and raise a family. Olsen supplemented his earnings by performing in saloons and for the soldiers and camp followers who arrived in Utah at the conclusion of the 1857-58 Utah War.
By 1861, Olsen had fallen in love with and won the affections of Delilah King, daughter of a prominent Millard County LDS family. Olsen’s reputation as an associate of the worst class of gentile society made the couple apprehensive about approaching Delilah’s father to ask permission for their marriage. Instead, Olsen approached Brigham Young and asked him to write a referral to Delilah’s father.
Judging from the number of false starts in the surviving rough draft of that referral, Brigham found this a difficult task.
No, he evidently thought, he would not make such a strong statement, but instead would outline what he knew of Olsen.
My acquaintance with and knowledge of br. Daniel Olsen is too limited to admit of my writing much about him, though, to comply with his request, I give address to you these few lines. I am informed that some two years or three years ago his associations were mostly with the gentiles and those of our community who delighted in their society, such as Jesse Earle, &c., playing in the drinking and gambling saloons
No – that was coming out all too negative; better to start with an explanation of why he was writing.
By request of br. Daniel Olsen, I address to you a few
My goodness! This was proving difficult. Finally, though, he came up with a satisfactory opening:
In compliance with br. Daniel Olsen’s request, I address you a few lines, for my acquaintance with and knowledge of br. Olsen is too limited to admit of my writing much about him.
I am informed that some two or three years ago, while the gentiles were here,
his associations were mostly with the gentiles and those of our community who delighted in their society, such as Jesse Earle, &c., playing in the drinking and gambling saloons
Ack! Here he was again, writing more negatively than he intended to. For someone with the reputation of an autocrat meddling in private affairs, Brigham was certainly struggling with how to meddle this time. Finally he hit his stride:
… he was more or less employed by them to play at their parties but I have not learned that he was in any way seriously intermixed in their affairs or society. Of late I hear that he is inclined to pursue a more commendable course, evincing a disposition to occupy his time and energies more steadily in some
industrial orlaudable avocation for a livelihood, which course it is to be hoped he will continue and improve in, that he may be useful in society and honor the professioncause in which we are engaged.
Having got past the hard part – suggesting that Olsen had a mixed reputation but was evidently now on the right path – Brigham approached the heart of his letter:
He wishes to marry your daughter, and desired me to recommend him to you, but when it comes to that I can only
say to youinform you of my practice in such cases; when my daughters wish to marry I permit them to exercise their own choice, for they are certainly the parties most concerned, simply giving them such counsel upon the point as my judgement may at that time dictate.
TrustingDeeming that writing but little upon a subjectconcerning a person that I know but little about, and that little mostly hearsay, willfulfills my engagement, I remain,
Your Brother in the Gospel,
And there we find a very clear exposition of Brigham’s philosophy and practice of “arranging” marriages – it was foolish even to attempt it. The choice of marriage partner – for good or ill – was the right of the parties involved, and he would not interfere. Period.