Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Brigham Young — Marriage Broker?

Brigham Young — Marriage Broker?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 07, 2008

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.

I advise

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 or laudable 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 profession cause 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 you inform 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.

Trusting Deeming that writing but little upon a subject concerning a person that I know but little about, and that little mostly hearsay, will fulfills my engagement, I remain,

Your Brother in the Gospel,

Brigham Young

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.



  1. I always enjoy your historical insights and this was very enjoyable–to imagine Brigham trying to put something delicately made me smile. (Is there anyway to increase the miniscule font size of the posting?)

    Comment by anita — May 7, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  2. Ardis,
    Congratulations on your new blog. I know that it will be a great one!
    A word about B.Y. and the dispensation of marriage advice. Years ago one his direct descendants and a friend of mine, the late Sidney Hooper (“Skip”) Young — a civil engineer in San Francisco — sent me a photocopy of some family correspondence in which B.Y. advised his son, 2d Lieut. Willard Young, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to pay some attention to the unattached young daughter of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. The general, Mrs. Sherman, and Miss Sherman had just visited Salt Lake City, and father brought Miss Sherman and her charms to young Willard’s attention in the mid-1870s at a time that he was serving at Fort Totten, NY soon after graduating from West Point. Somewhat prone to belabor the obvious, B.Y. brought to Willard’s attention the fact that focusing on Miss Sherman might not hurt his army career. (There was no suggestion that the general’s daughter might represent a target of opportunity in terms of proselytizing, although perhaps that went without saying — unlike the career advice.) So what did Willard Young do? Skip Young, Willard’s grandson and the third Young in succession to be commissioned out of West Point (Skip served in WWII), informed me that Willard promptly married the daughter not of General Sherman but of William H. Hooper, the prominent Salt Lake City merchant and former Utah delegate to Congress who had secured his appointment to West Point in the early 1870s. So much for fatherly advice on things social, if not matrimonial.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — May 7, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  3. And thus begins your fantastic blog with a fantastically interesting post. Very intriguing, Ardis.

    Comment by Ben — May 7, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  4. This is awesome, and Bill, your anecdote is equally wonderful. I’ve been meaning to do a good reading of the BY letters to his sons volume. I imagine there is a lot of good stuff in there.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 7, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  5. That’s pretty funny. I am reminded of the letter to one particular Latter-day Saint in which BY essentially recommended that the man remain a hermit because he was far from being good marriage material (qtd. in Arrington, American Moses, 316).

    Comment by Justin — May 7, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

  6. Good one indeed and funny as well.

    Comment by Jon W. — May 7, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

  7. Lovely.

    Comment by mmiles — May 7, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

  8. At the risk of going where I have very little knowledge, I don’t see this anecdote as terribly strong evidence for Elder Jensen’s stance (although it is a fun story!). It doesn’t seem outlandish that BY brokered some marriages.

    I suspect if the FLDS compound had as large a community to draw from as 1860s Utah, the percentage of marriages brokered there would be more limited (with the absolute number possibly constant). That Daniel Olsen thought BY could pull the trick for him, could be viewed as consistent with the idea of BY as potential marriage broker. More to the point, it seems like some Nauvoo marriages were indeed brokered. Seems the stories of Martha Brotherton and Helen Mar show quite strongly that to be the case (I.e., wife’s husband chosen by leadership).

    Comment by NorthboundZax — May 7, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  9. 07 May 2008
    Near Houston, TX

    To all my dear, well-intentioned but obtrusive friends:

    Please go to; read carefully (making such gender substitutions as necessary); and follow the prophet.

    Also: don’t worry; I’ll send you an announcement when the time comes.


    Comment by Edje — May 7, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

  10. J. Stapley (#4), I recommend Dean Jesee’s edited volume of B.Y.’s letters to his sons. As I think I’ve said elsewhere, my favorite letter is to West Point Cadet Willard Young on which B.Y. scrawled a P.S. before it was mailed. B.Y. had dictated the letter earlier in the day and found it on his desk when he returned to the office around midnight. Although it was neatly written in clerical hand by the man in his office to whom he had dictated it, B.Y. took pen in hand and addressed some fatherly advice to Willard. The son was then (1871 I think) in his plebe year at West Point and not enjoying it all that much…isolated and gratuitously reviled by the New York newspapers as the illegitimate offspring of a polygamous marriage (as they saw it). Willard’s few respites from the rigorous regimen of USMA and social isolation were occasional visits from the LDS bishop or branch president in Brooklyn and letters from home. I don’t remember exactly what it was that B.Y. said in that P.S. to Willard, but I was struck by (and still remember) the circumstances under which he wrote it, i.e., in the still of the night in an empty office on the Wasatch Front to a lonely lad under pressure far from home in an alien world which was then exerting even greater pressure on the father. Almost everything that we have from B.Y. was filtered/edited/cleaned up by clerks and editors, partly because of his admitted educational shortfalls. That P.S. in his own hand to Willard, though, was an unmistakable example of a busy, weary father’s love for his absent son. As I’ve also said elsewhere, Willard Young went on to rise from the status of reviled cadet from Utah to being one of the army’s favorite sons and general officers. I’ve read the adulatory obituaries that his brother-officers wrote about him and his nephew Richard Whitehead Young (B.Y.’s grandson and also a West Pointer) when they died in the 20th century. Such material truly reflected not only the esteem in which these men were held after they had proven themselves to their peers but the change in attitudes as the conflicts of the 19th century receded.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — May 7, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

  11. Thanks, Bill. I have Jesse’s volume waiting on my shelf and your kind pointers and personal reactions are not only appreciated but encouraging.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 7, 2008 @ 7:18 pm

  12. I think I remember a talk by Leonard Arrington where he described BY as functioning something like the Dear Abby of Utah territory, giving advice to the lovelorn. People would write him for advice, and as Justin points out in comment # 5, BY wasn’t shy about giving it.

    Comment by Mark IV — May 7, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

  13. This is a nice post. For the first time I probably find Brigham Young more refreshing than Joseph Smith.

    Now, JS did not arrange marriages for other people per say, but he certainly arranged some of his own with the claim that either “an angel” or “God” had told him he must marry them; such as in the case of already married Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs and the Partridge girls.

    Now, how could a 18th century LDS woman contradict the “commandment” from the prophet since by so doing she would be contradicting/disobeying “God”?

    This “against the wall” situation puts these women in the very difficult yet very similar position that FLDS women face when their “prophet” tells them “God” tells him they must do this, or do that; or marry this man or that man.

    It’s a rather unfair position because in both belief systems, these women are faced against the “will of God.” There is not an easy way out of this type of psychological intimidation and cornering.

    Comment by Manuel — May 7, 2008 @ 11:51 pm

  14. Was Joseph marrying many 18th century women?

    Ardis, good luck on your new blog! I shall check back frequently. ^_^

    Comment by Sarah — May 8, 2008 @ 3:01 am

  15. Sarah, if Joseph had married a hundred 18th century women it wouldn’t bother me much … somewhere around the time of the First Vision, the youngest of them would have been of age …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 8, 2008 @ 5:00 am

  16. Years ago I read a biography of the sculptor who designed Mt Rushmore. He was the product of an LDS polygamous marriage which was dissolved when found too difficult, and Mormonism abandoned. Imagine how much more quickly the SL temple could have been constructed with him on board! It occurred to me then that besides Emma, we don’t hear much about those who opposed, fought against, opted out of, or eventually left LDS polygamy.

    Come to find out just last month that there is one among my own ancestors–a great-grandfather. He felt it a personal shortcoming that he could not bring himself to practice polygamy in spite of pressure to do so, and felt that he was likely shortchanging himself eternally. I find myself wondering who I will be expressing more appreciation for in the eternities: this great-grandfather who followed his personal convictions against great external pressure, or my husband’s great, great grandfather, who against personal objection followed BY’s instructions to find another wife (his fifth) while on a mission in Scandinavia. My husband is decended from and named after this grandfather and his 5th (Danish) wife.

    Comment by Lisa B — May 8, 2008 @ 8:19 am

  17. Somehow I missed the chance to congratulate you on your initial post, so here I am doing it here. And I loved this post. Methinks I will go blogroll you on my blog.

    Love the title, btw.

    Comment by m&m — May 8, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

  18. I also missed the congratulations for your first post, Ardis. This is exciting – something I definitely will check regularly and link on my own blog.

    Comment by Ray — May 9, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

  19. This is great, Ardis.

    Like anita (#1), I found the picture of “The Lion of the Lord” struggling so hard to write a properly delicate letter fascinating.

    Comment by Ray — May 9, 2008 @ 7:56 pm

  20. Glad you found me, Ray. I aim to please, and it’s a relief and a pleasure to see friends like you showing up.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 10, 2008 @ 8:00 am