Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » George Bernard Shaw on Mormon Polygamy

George Bernard Shaw on Mormon Polygamy

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 13, 2009

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Anglo-Irish author of more than 60 plays and winner of both the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925, for the totality of his literary contributions rather than for any specific work) and an Academy Award (Oscar) (1930, for Pygmalion), as well as prolific producer of literary and music criticism, focused most often on social issues. He supported equality of political rights for women and protested what he saw as exploitation of workers; his socialist idealism was bone-deep, to the point where he refused to believe news of famine in the supposed agrarian paradise of the Soviet Union, despite all evidence of that system’s failures.

While on a 1933 world tour, Shaw made his first and only visit to the United States. He made a single major address during that visit, one sponsored by the Academy of Political Science at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, on 11 April 1933. His talk, “The Future of Political Science in America,” was broadcast by radio from coast to coast and later published in both authorized and pirated versions.

“Finding myself in an opera house with such a magnificent and responsive audience, I feel an irresistible temptation to sing,” he began. And while he may not literally have sung, he gave a long and perceptive address on American politics, culture, history, education, and the future he envisioned for the country. While he found much to praise in the American people themselves, most of his remarks were blisteringly critical of capitalism and American culture.

Except insofar as they were entertained by the wit and oratorical brilliance of the speech, most Latter-day Saints probably did not enjoy the sharp rebuke of America’s shortcomings. They certainly must have done an aural doubletake, though, when they heard this in the midst of the speech:

… You know, if you study American history – not the old history books; for almost all American histories until very lately, were mere dustbins of the most mendacious vulgar journalism – but the real history of America, you will be ashamed of it, because the real history of all mankind is shameful. But there is hope in bits of it. I wonder how many of you have ever studied the history of the Latter-day Saints; one of the most extraordinary episodes in the white settlement of the world. You should do so; for it shows Americans doing something for reasons which would astonish me very much if I saw the same thing being done for the same reasons in England.

There was a time when the Mormons were so few in number that they were in very great danger of being killed by their pious neighbors because their views were unpopular. But they were themselves a very pious people. They were brought up with the strictest old-fashioned ideas with regard to the relations of the sexes and the sanctity of marriage: marriage, of course, being the established monogamous marriage of the Christian west.

Well, their leader went to these pious men and women and said to them, “I want you to take to polygamy. I want all you men to have as many wives as you can possibly afford instead of one wife.”

Think what a terrific thing that was to say to such people! I do not know any more moving passage in literature than that in which Brigham Young describes how, after receiving the appalling order, he met a funeral on his way home and found himself committing the mortal sin of envying the dead. And yet Brigham Young lived to have a very large number of wives according to our ideas … and to become immortal in history as an American Moses by leading his people through the wilderness into an unpromised land where they founded a great city on polygamy.

Now nothing can be more idle, nothing more frivolous, than to imagine that this polygamy had anything to do with personal licentiousness. if Joseph Smith had proposed to the Latter-day Saints that they should live licentious lives, they would have rushed on him and probably anticipated the pious neighbors who presently shot him. The significant point in the case was that the reason he gave them was a purely political reason. He said “Unless we multiply our numbers, we are lost; and we can multiply our numbers rapidly only by polygamy. And, therefore, whatever our prejudices, whatever our feelings may be, if we are to save the Church of the Latter-day Saints from annihilation by the superior numbers of its enemies in this State, we must take to polygamy.”

And they did it. That was the wonderful American thing. A body of Americans were capable of changing their lives and discarding their most deeply rooted ideas for a purely political reason! That makes some of you laugh. I am very glad. Whenever in the search for truth I hit the nail exactly on the head, there is always a laugh at first; but nothing that I shall say tonight is more significant than that illustration of American capacity for political action. … I really do entertain a hope – I think I am the only person in the world who entertains it so far; but after my preaching tonight some of you may begin to entertain it – that Americans, in spite of all the follies of the past, in spite of your obsolete Uncle Jonathan, in spite of your ridiculous hundred-percent American, may yet take the lead in political thought and action, and help to save the soul of the world. …

[Note: Ellipses in interior sentences are the punctuation of the original; nothing has been omitted.]

Four years later, the editors of the Improvement Era wrote to Shaw asking permission to reprint that section of his speech. Shaw returned their letter, having underlined the request and adding these words:

By all means. Send me a copy of ‘The Era’ containing it if you are not too busy to remember.

G. Bernard Shaw. 26th May, 1937.

The article was published in the July 1937 issue, without any discussion or disputation of the accuracy of Shaw’s remarks. I find it fascinating that at a time when the Church was fighting so hard to stamp out the unauthorized practice of polygamy and excommunicating so many who defied priesthood direction in the matter, the Church would publish such an article. I think the flattery of having been favorably noticed by so prominent a world figure overrode any potential sensitivity. Can’t imagine such a thing being published in the Ensign today!



  1. In all of our conservative trappings, it is interesting that we get a measure of admiration as a people from free thinking liberals like Shaw and Burton. Anyone willing to part with prejudice and really use their eyes is farther along the road of eternal progression than those who possess a measure of the truth and hold to it blind to all that lies beyond. That applies to members of the church as well as the world at large.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — January 13, 2009 @ 6:32 am

  2. Very interesting post. It reminds me of T.H. White’s comments in his book America at Last or Dicken’s comments on visiting the departing Saints on the ship in Liverpool.

    Comment by Researcher — January 13, 2009 @ 7:54 am

  3. Fascinating.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 13, 2009 @ 8:50 am

  4. While I do not believe Soviet socialism is the political answer to the nations, neither is capitalism. It’s just that capitalism seems to work better than socialism.

    I agree with Shaw that sometimes people do have to break away from the chains of tradition and do what is necessary to achieve the greatest good for the whole. The Soviet attempt failed, because they were ready to throw away people to achieve goals that were imposed on the people. For the Latter-day Saints, polygamy was not imposed, but was expected of those desiring to move forth the kingdom of God on earth.

    Thanks again Ardis for a great article. I wonder if Shaw ever received his copy of the Era? If so, Was it mailed to him, or was it delivered in person?

    Comment by Rameumptom — January 13, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  5. What J. said.

    Comment by Christopher — January 13, 2009 @ 9:11 am

  6. I am no supporter of polygamy, but I have always had a respect for those who could set aside their personal objections and do what they were commanded to do. I have read enough original accounts that I believe that most knew they were obeying the commandments of God. I could not do the same. Fortunately, I have not been asked to.

    I suspect the editors of the Improvement Era felt that same way about their polygamous parents and grandparents as I do about my great great grandparents.

    As for Shaw’s explanation of why they were able to do it (i. e. political expediency), he is, of course, missing the whole point. If it were just about politics, it would never have worked as long as it did.

    Comment by BruceCrow — January 13, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  7. Amazing find. As always this is one of the best in the bloggernaccle.

    Comment by bbell — January 13, 2009 @ 10:00 am

  8. I like Shaw’s version of things.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 13, 2009 @ 10:38 am

  9. I had never heard of this. Thanks for bringing it up. And for the thoughtful and interesting lead-in paragraphs that you wrote.

    Shaw’s description of poorly written history as “the most mendacious vulgar journalism” gave me pause. It’s easy for me to jump on the bandwagon when the press gets their hands on some purported malfeasor. Surely much of public opinion against the the “barbaric” Mormons was stoked by such salacious journalism. When I hear a news report of some supposed bad actor, I have to stop and ask myself whether I shouldn’t think it through a little myself and not just rely on someone else’s conclusions. In this respect, I greatly admire Shaw’s independent thinking (and courage for speaking his mind).

    Comment by Hunter — January 13, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  10. Thanks for this, Ardis.

    Comment by JimD — January 13, 2009 @ 11:42 am

  11. Fantastic stuff, Ardis! I found the comment on the members all rushing to shoot poor Joseph ahead of the mob quite entertaining, for some reason.

    Comment by Alison — January 13, 2009 @ 11:48 am

  12. Ardis,

    It appears that Shaw did not attribute this quote:

    He said “Unless we multiply our numbers, we are lost; and we can multiply our numbers rapidly only by polygamy. And, therefore, whatever our prejudices, whatever our feelings may be, if we are to save the Church of the Latter-day Saints from annihilation by the superior numbers of its enemies in this State, we must take to polygamy.”

    Is that really a JS quote?

    Side note: Given Shaw’s fascination with phonetic spelling, I wonder if he ever ran across the Deseret Alphabet? He gave us the example of how fish could be spelled “ghoti” and be pronounced correctly in English. And if I recall, phonetic spelling may have been one of the motivations behind the Deseret Alphabet.

    Comment by kevinf — January 13, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  13. I’d be interested to know if the quote highlighted by kevinf is attributed to JS. if so, it must be the definitive answer as to why the Church practiced polygamy, but I’ve not come across it before (no reason why I should, but would be interested to know).

    Comment by Anne — January 13, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  14. No, that quotation doesn’t sound one bit like Joseph. It can’t even be Shaw’s paraphrase of a Joseph Smith statement, as far as I’m concerned, because that wasn’t any part of the purpose of polygamy in the Nauvoo era, according to anything authentic I’ve ever read. I think that Shaw decided that was the purpose of polygamy, perhaps through his own reasoning or even perhaps from reading secondary literature that speculated on polygamy’s purpose, and presented it in conversational style as a rhetorical device, not intending it to be taken as a direct quotation.

    That’s the point I would expect to be corrected or at least debated today, if this Shaw piece were ever again reprinted by a Mormon press.

    kevinf, although there are revisionists who would dispute me, you are right according to every rational account I’ve ever read concerning the purpose of the Deseret Alphabet. Brigham Young was a terrible book-learner, although he was a brilliant thinker and learner-by-doing. He’d had so much trouble learning to read, and especially trying to spell (he was an utter failure at spelling) that he truly desired a reading/writing system for converts that would make it possible for them to be literate, at least to the extent of reading the Book of Mormon. Brigham and Shaw might well have seen eye to eye about the need for spelling reform.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 13, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  15. Actually, I’m not really all that surprised that Shaw’s endorsement of Mormon polygamy got published in a Church publication in 1937. My hunch is that the editorial staff’s decision whether to print it was probably not a difficult one. The glowing approval by an outsider – and a very respected and famous outsider – probably outweighed any concerns about letting our past stay in the past.

    Comment by Hunter — January 13, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

  16. Fantastic Ardis! Thank you for this gem.

    Comment by Chad Too — January 13, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

  17. Fascinating Ardis! Shaw’s is an interesting take on polygamy that not many saw or cared to see (or see today for that matter). The fact that Mormons were just as pious as the next man, and polygamy went directly contrary to everything they had been taught to believe regarding morality, yet many embraced it. Very interesting.

    Comment by Meghan — January 13, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

  18. In my dilitantish fashion I can offer no references to support, but Shaws analysis comes mighty close to what I remember as the stated purpose. Polygamy, properly polygyny, was to raise up righteous seed and was contrasted in effect to polyandry as tending to increase population, considered an important matter in a frontier society, while the latter tended toward diminuation. Shaw’s words are balder, but they mean the same thing.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — January 14, 2009 @ 6:25 am

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