Just finished Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (U. of Illinois Press, 1992) by B. Carmon Hardy. Like every story, the story of Mormon polygamy has a beginning, middle, and end. This book gives the definitive account of the end of official polygamy as practiced in the LDS Church, and the end is at least as interesting as the beginning. But for modern Latter-day Saints, it is, in many ways, a painful tale. In fact, most of you are probably better off simply not reading this book. Just stick with the "Wilford Woodruff got a revelation in 1890 that ended the practice of polygamy" story (what I'll call the "Manifesto Myth") and get on with your life. Here are three reasons you probably shouldn't read this book.
The Long Kiss Goodnight
The first reason not to read the book is that polygamy didn't end in 1890. That's a problem, because the Manifesto Myth gives a short, crisp answer to the polygamy question, whereas the real history offers no similar direct and effective response. As recounted by Hardy in convincing detail, polygamy was slowly phased out between 1890 and 1910. Before 1890, the Church and all senior leaders supported polygamy and just about every senior leader was a dedicated polygamist. To have been otherwise would have been considered disloyal if not heretical. After 1910, the Church and its senior leaders were again unified, now in rejecting and enjoining the practice, whether open or covert, of plural marriage.
But the book makes clear that from 1890 to 1910 there was a great deal of confusion about where the Church (as an institution) and its senior leaders (whose opinions differed on the topic) stood. There was certainly confusion among the rank and file membership, and even among senior leaders themselves, as to what the official LDS policy actually meant in practice or what the President said in private (to those requesting a plural marriage) or though trusted intermediaries, as opposed to what he said in public and to the media. Polygamy died one apostle at a time, and the details of how that process played out are not always flattering.
It Didn't Just Fade Away
The second reason not to read the book is that polygamy didn't really just fade away between 1890 and 1910, which, if not as crisp as the Manifesto Myth, wouldn't be that bad a story. True, polygamy was much less attractive to the younger generation of Mormons, one of the unexpected facts I came across in the book. But don't forget that almost all of the senior leaders in 1890 were polygamists. They came to view the younger generation's preference for monogamy as just caving in to the debased monogamic morality prevalent in Western society. Most of the older leaders were concerned about the continuation of "the Principle" and were encouraged by those younger Mormons (often sons of existing polygamists) who were inclined to take a plural wife. The Manifesto was viewed by many (both leaders and members, but especially by polygamists) as a tactical retreat rather than as a surrender.
The effect of that perspective is obvious from even a cursory inspection of the data on the number of annual plural marriages performed each year, as provided in detail in Appendix II of the book and as summarized in a graph on page 317 of the text. Post-Manifesto plural marriages were performed at a rate of under 10 per year from 1890 to 1896; after statehood (and some freedom from federal control) in 1896 it went to between 20 and 30 per year; then, after 1901, when Joseph F. Smith became President of the Church, it briefly hit 40 per year. Only in 1904, with the sudden and unwelcome glare of the Senate's Smoot hearings, did the rate drop back below 10 per year through 1910. Official polygamy was not fading away or on its way out as the period progressed. Instead, it was showing remarkable persistence up until at least 1904.
The third reason not to read the book is that it has the effect of making the category "Mormon fundamentalists" somewhat problematic. In common LDS parlance, "fundamentalists" are Mormon offshoot groups who refused to give up polygamy when the official Church finally did, about 1910. And they're still around. They've been in the news a lot recently. Best-sellers tell their story. They have their own temple. They even have their own TV show.
So where did Mormon fundamentalists come from? That's the messy question, you see. Reading between the lines, it's clear that they were there all along; they didn't just flare into existence circa 1910. Were there fundamentalists in 1900? Yes, we called them apostles. About half the apostles at that time fit the definition: they practiced and/or supported polygamy despite official policy to the contrary. Some eventually came around; others didn't. Those who didn't reform or die by 1911 were finally excommunicated (John W. Taylor) or defrocked (Matthias F. Cowley).
So there are some good reasons to not read Solemn Covenant. You're probably better off with the Manifesto Myth, which offers the additional advantage that it's short enough to use in Sunday School and won't get you in trouble at church. At least you should read The Mormon Experience and review the plural marriage coverage in Rough Stone Rolling before tackling Hardy's book. Then read Van Wagoner's Mormon Polygamy: A History. And probably even Alexander's Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930. If, after all that, you just have to know the rest of the story of polygamy, at that point go buy Solemn Covenant.