History Features

Shedding the Cross of Polygamy

Ann Eliza Webb, wife of Brigham Young, spoke out against plural marriages.


She did the unthinkable—divorcing the powerful leader of the Mormon Church, a man labeled a “living prophet” who was believed to speak directly with God. But Ann Eliza Young could not tolerate her position as “Wife No. 19” to Brigham Young, and in her rebellion, she exposed the horrors of polygamy.

She was born Ann Eliza Webb on September 3, 1844, in Nauvoo, Illinois, a settlement founded by Mormons. Her father, Chauncey, was a carriage maker who would eventually—reluctantly at first—take other wives until he had five. When she was two, her family joined the Zion exodus that eventually settled them in Utah Territory.

Her childhood wasn’t happy, she’d later write in her book, Wife No. 19, mainly because of the “blight of polygamy.” She had watched her own mother suffer and early on, recognized the pain that plural marriage brought to a family. Of her mother, she wrote “that misery came to her as it came to all the [Mormon] women then, under the guise of religion—something that must be endured ‘for Christ’s sake.’ And, as her religion had brought her nothing but persecution and sacrifice, she submitted to this new trial as to everything that had preceded it, and she received polygamy as a cross laid upon her.”

Ann Eliza never intended to enter into plural marriage, and she left her first husband when he flirted with the practice. She took her two sons to her parents’ home. She was a beautiful 24-year-old and quickly caught the eye of 68-year-old Brigham Young. Although she was repulsed, the church leader used his powers to blackmail her into marriage. Her brother had entered into a business contract with Young that failed, and Young threatened to ruin him and drive him from the church—unless Ann Eliza agreed to be his bride. To save her brother and his family from expulsion, she agreed to marry...

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