I’m excited to have a non-Mormon polygamy expert on the show.
Larry: I’m Dr. Larry Foster. I’m a professor at Georgia Tech. I’m sort of an oddball at Georgia Tech because I’m probably the only professor who teaches courses in religion regularly. People also wonder why a non-Mormon like myself would have spent at least four decades–more than that really, studying the Latter-day Saints without converting, why not convert? Or non-Mormons saying, “You must know all the dirt? Why aren’t you an anti-Mormon?” So, I’ve actually written a couple of scholarly articles explaining that. I’ll try to explain some of that to you today, if you would like.
GT: That was my first question was, why would a non-Mormon be so interested in Mormonism?
Larry: Yeah, well, it’s sort of a backdoor route. I went to a very liberal, experimental college–Antioch College in southern Ohio in the late 1960s, which was a very turbulent period, as I think most of you remember: the Vietnam War protests, civil rights protests, other sorts of things going on. I thought I was fairly liberal when I went to Antioch, but I decided that I was the last living conservative on earth when I was at Antioch.
But when I was getting ready to do my undergraduate thesis in history, I decided to try and see if there were any other periods in history, when there had been similar sorts of tensions and confusions. I’d seen lots of people experimenting with alternative communal arrangements and read about them and visited different places. My hobby is to just visit new and alternative religious groups and see what they’re like, and so forth. I wondered if there was any other period when things were as turbulent and how they had handled them. I discovered there was a period that was very similar to the 1960s, surprisingly. It was before the American Civil War, in the 1830’s and 1840’s and especially in New York State. New York State was sort of the California of that period of almost anything you could find in present-day-California, you could find in New York State in the 1830’s and 40’s. It was a hotbed of all sorts of religious and political and social experimentation. I decided to look at two groups in that area that was sometimes called the Burned Over District because of so much revivalistic fervor burning over the area repeatedly. So I took two groups that I thought were polar opposites:
The Shakers who were a celibate, Protestant semi-monastic group that basically prohibited sexual intercourse among its members and lived in separate communities apart from the rest of the society, and the Oneida community in Central New York State, which developed a system of complex marriage, in which they argued that all adult members of the community were heterosexually married to each other and could exchange sexual partners within a very complex system of controls that they actually had to make sure that they didn’t–nobody got too excited about any one person formed exclusive relations. Here’s two complete opposites. Shakers are celibate. The Oneida community says, “Go to it for everybody.”
GT: Polyamorous, would that be the way to describe it?
Larry: No, I wouldn’t call it that. It’s much more controlled than polyamorous.
We talk more about all three groups. It was really interesting to see him compare the 1830s to the 1960s! Check out our conversation…
We’ll be talking about polygamy all month! You may want to bone up on our previous conversations with Brian Hales!