19th century nuptiality and anti-Mormon propaganda

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At the annual John Whitmer Historical Association meeting in September, Craig Foster announced that he and Newell Bringhurst will be editing an anthology on polygamy. Two  of the 15 or so essays will take opposing views on whether teen marriage was normal in the 19th century. Squaring off will be an extended version of Todd Compton’s Sunstone West presentation and a paper co-authored by Craig Foster, Greg Smith, and myself. My role is to be the stat man, while Greg is an expert on Nauvoo plural marriage, and Craig is a accomplished historian and has mastered the literature on marriage trends. Craig and Greg are more prolific authors than myself and I summarized some of their work at the height of the Romney campaign here on the FAIR blog. I think this gave an early  picture of what might happen if the three of us combined skills.

There will be somewhat of a wait before our book chapter will be published and I feel for those church members and investigators who are exposed to presentist anti-Mormon propaganda and don’t know where to look for accurate information. While I don’t like giving attention to such sites, sometimes they do more damage if left unchecked. I do not want to start a debate with the sponsors of such sites and forums. How they react to my constructive criticism is up to them. They can ignore me and leave their articles in their poorly researched and analyzed state, or they can attack me by labeling me as a pedophile, or they can work to improve their content. I would actually encourage them to do the latter, though I do not feel obligated to do their homework for them.

One article about 19th century marriage statistics and Joseph Smith’s plural marriages that is widely used by critics is found at i4m.com. It is poorly researched, but provides a. reference section that gives to the unwary that it is well documented.  The few sources appear to have been  cobbled together by some anti-Mormon message board poster and backs up almost nothing in the article’s main text.

Where can one find accurate information on 19th century marital trends? I recommend the following:

J. David Hacker.  “Rethinking the ‘Early’ Decline of Marital Fertility in the United States” Demography Volume 40, Number 4, November 2003, pp. 605-620

Michael R. Haines. “Long-term marriage patterns in the United States from colonial times to the present” History of the Family 1996, Volume 1, Number 1, pp. 15–39

Catherine Fitch and Steven Ruggles. 2000. “Historical Trends in Marriage Formation.” In Linda Waite, Christine Bachrach, Michelle Hindin, Elizabeth Thomson, and Arland Thornton, eds., Ties that Bind: Perspectives on Marriage and Cohabitation. Hawthorne: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 59-88.  http://tinyurl.com/yhc9sc5

The Foster, Keller, Smith paper will extend the methods for data collecting, analyzing, and reporting found in these works. One important extension is that we will look at marriage cohorts in addition to birth cohorts, the latter being more typical in the demographics literature. A marriage cohort is a set of females married in a year’s time frame,  which can then be broken down by age. A birth cohort is a set of females that were born the same year, which can then be broken down by the age at marriage (though it was typical for 7-8% of a birth cohort that reached 50 to have never married).

Marriage cohorts had lower average marital age than birth cohorts because a larger amount of the total population resides at the younger ages. Visualize a demographic pyramid with a wide base. Marriage cohorts therefore have a higher percentage of teens than birth cohorts. These breakdowns more closely approximate marriage market dynamics and provide a better comparison to the age profile of Joseph Smith’s wives.

In demographic literature, the two types of statistical breakdowns are called age-independent (for birth cohorts) and age dependent (for marriage cohorts). When data is collected from US Census it is most usually reported age-independently. When county records are summarized age-dependently. When good records about both birth and marriage are available (genealogical databases) generally age-independent reporting is preferred. So age-independent breakdowns dominate demographics literature.

It is possible that my method that I developed to convert age-independent Census data to age-dependent data will be of interest to the wider academic community (outside of Mormonism) . I won’t go into details here, but main tools for the job are the widely used Coale-McNeil model and a generalized extension presented in this article:

Ryuichi Kaneko. “Elaboration of the Coale-McNeil Nuptiality Model as The Generalized Log Gamma Distribution: A New Identity and Empirical Enhancements” Demographic Research 2003 Volume 9  pp. 223-262 http://www.demographic-research.org/volumes/vol9/10/9-10.pdf

The Coale-McNeil model is also used in Haines (1996) article above. With the appropriate assumptions and extensions the Coale-McNeil model is extremely useful for estimating marriage trends for 1800-1840 and for providing a age breakdown if the mean marital age is known. Furthermore it makes it easier to adjust for age population dynamics (due to high birth and death rates) that make the actual marital age lower than the age-independent census data does.

Now with the backing of this recent scholarship let me dissect some of i4m’s accusations.

i4m: “There is no documentation to support the idea that marriage at fourteen was ‘approaching eligibility.'”

This should probably be changed to i4m has not found any documentation. Yet such documentation is easily found. Coale’s model has established a statistical benchmark for the minimum age of eligibility (which turns out to be the mean minus 1.73 times the standard deviation). Haines (1996) above tabulates estimates from Sanderson for years 1800-1920 for the minimum age and it ranges from 14.0-14.3. I get a little lower using better data and a maximum likelihood estimation technique (~13.5 in 1800).

i4m “Actually, marriages even two years later, at the age of sixteen, occurred occasionally but infrequently in Helen Mar’s culture. Thus, girls marrying at fourteen, even fifteen, were very much out of the ordinary. Sixteen was comparatively rare, but not unheard of.”

Here i4m is describing marriage at 14, 15, and 16 in Helen Mar Kimball’s culture, but have not quantified anything. Suppose we take HMK’s culture to be 1840 white America (more refinements could be made based on region married in, region born in, region parents born in, rural or urban, etc.). Then based on my latest estimates if one were to attend 100 random weddings involving first time brides in 1840: 1.9 brides would be 14 or younger, 3.8 would be 15, and 6.7 would be 16.

i4m:”American women began to marry in their late teens;”

This statement is false. From above 12.3% married before turning 17. By Coale’s benchmark, which he described as the “the earliest age of a significant number of first marriages,” and noted that this age “depends on age laws, the onset of menarche, and traditional community standards. As noted earlier, empirically this age was around 13.5 or 14.0 in the mid 19th century.

i4m: “around different parts of the United States the average age of marriage varied from nineteen to twenty-three.”

This might be the most defensible number or characterization that i4m makes. For 1880, Hacker (2003) writes that  “SMAM [an age-independent measure of the mean] ranged from 21.4 in the Mountain and Pacific regions to 24.6 in New England.” He calculated the national mean to be 23.3. Nationwide a reasonable compromise presented in Haines (1996) is that the marital age was 21.0, but as i4m notes Sanderson estimated 19.0. I use the conservative compromise in my estimates but 19.0 sounds about right for some of the more frontier regions of the country.

However i4m misuses the mean in their analysis. In the Coale-McNeil model 60% of a birth cohort have been married by the mean age. This is standard regardless of census year data used. After adjusting for population increase the mean age drops in 1880 to 22.4 and 38% of first time brides were teenagers. Note that I am switching to age-dependent statistics. For 1840, I estimate teenage brides in 43% of all [first time] weddings. The most frequent marrying age was 18. This is a far cry from marriage beginning to occur in the late teens as i4m portrays.

i4m: “In the United States the average age of menarche (first menstruation) dropped from 16.5 in 1840 to 12.9 in 1950.”

No papers are cited to support this claim. One should take pre-1900 numbers with a large dose of salt. Peter Laslett wrote (p. 215) “almost nothing is known about age of sexual maturity for any society before the 20th century.” http://tinyurl.com/yfhnzrf

Here is a part of a brief survey that Craig Foster has compiled:

J. B. Post. “Ages at Menarche and Menopause: Some Medieval Authorities.” Population Studies 25:1 (March 1971): 86. claims that medieval manuscripts placed menarche around the age of twelve to fourteen.

EliseDe la Rochebrochard. “Les âges à la puberté des filles et des garçons à partir d’une enquête sur la sexualité des adolescents,” Population 54:6 (NOV-DEC 1999): 938.

Age at menarche in France
1750 – average of almost 16 years
1850 – a little over 15 years
1900 – 14 years
2000 – 12.5 years

Joseph Jacobs and Maurice Fishberg. “Menstruation,” JewishEncyclopedia.com

Menarche statistics during mid to late-19th century:

Jewish girls – 13 years
“Slavonian” girls – later

Magyar peasant girls – 15-16
Jewish girls – 14-15
Slovak girls – 16-17

Both Jewish and non-Jewish girls began to menstruate between ages 14 and 17.

New York City
Average age for Jewish Girls – 12.7 years
American-born – 12.1 years
Foreign-born – 13.2 years

In the Laslett link I gave also gives numbers in the 16-17 range for 19th century Europe. For America my current best guess for 1850 would be around 15.5, but I won’t waste time arguing why. The exact mean age, even if it could be precisely determined is not all that important as I will now show.

Laslett (p. 232) also conjectures menarche ages  have a  normal distribution with a standard deviation between 1.7-1.9.  The Coale-McNeil model also assumes age of eligibility is normally distributed. So even if we were to take i4m 16.4’s number as the 1840 mean and 1.7 as a standard deviation, 17% of all females aged 14.7  would have reached the age of puberty. This provides plenty of eligible females into the marriage market to account for the 1.9% [age dependent] or so that get married before age 15 reported earlier. There is no evidence that a statistically significant number of pre-pubescent girls were getting married in 19th century America.

i4m: “The mean age of first marriages in colonial America was between 19.8 years to 23.7, most women were married during the age period of peak fecundity (fertility).”

Studies on mid to late 19th century Mormon data shows the most fertile married cohort was the 15-19 age group. I could see no evidence that the younger brides in that group had a longer interval to their first birth or infant mortality rates were higher. Note that 19th century Mormon cohorts average marriage age was around 19.0 . Yet still no evidence a significant number of teens were marrying before menarche.

See D. L. Anderton and L. L. Bean. “Birth spacing and fertility limitation: a behavioral analysis of a nineteenth century frontier population.” Demography. 1985 May 22(2): 169-83.

i4m: “The psychological sexual maturity of Helen Mar Kimball in today’s average age of menarche (first menstruation) would put her psychological age of sexual maturity at the time of the marriage of Joseph Smith at 9.1 years old. (16.5 years-12.8 years =3.7 years) (12.8 years-3.7 years=9.1 years)”

Most theories of marriage timing  note the increase in the mean marital age over time suggest that teens are psychological less mature now than back then. The phenomenon has been called “extended childhood” in the literature.

“The fact is Helen Mar Kimball’s sexual development was still far from complete. Her psychological sexual maturity was not competent for procreation.”

Even if sexual relations could be proved (even Todd Compton, IIRC, argues this marriage was “dynastic” and likely not consummated); i4m has presented no evidence that Helen Mar wasn’t one of the 17 percent (using i4m’s mean and Laslett’s standard deviation) at the 14.7 age mark that had already reached menarche. I take the general US trend to not marry pre-pubescent girls (sometimes their was engagement understandings in place) is evidence that Helen wouldn’t even been considered for marriage by her parents. Helen remarked (hat tip Cal Robinson) “I had grown up very fast and my father often took me out with him and for this reason was taken to be older than I was.”

So i4m’s content on marriage statistics in the 19th century is not very good. In declaring it a myth that it was normal for girls aged 12-14 to marry they are have created propaganda that can easily be falsified by readily available census data. One example of how this propaganda has perpetuated is found in Brian Mackert’s defense of the awful “Search for Truth” video that FAIR reviewed. Mackert borrowed i4m’s material wholesale, even though I think he is competent enough to do his own independent research. I do not wish to create drama with such critics, but rather hope those really looking for the truth will be able to find it here.

24 thoughts on “19th century nuptiality and anti-Mormon propaganda

  1. Ardis Parshall

    Keller, I don’t understand. The post distracts with too much that seems entirely irrelevant — how does knowing the typical age of menarche among peasant girls in Hungary tell us anything about the typical age of marriage among American girls on the 19th century frontier?

    Could you please provide a short statement that — even if it is not precise due to its brevity — summarizes your thesis? Something like “We estimate that x% of brides in Joseph’s time married before the age of 16, and we reach this conclusion by …”

    Also, how do you define “normal” when it comes to age of marriage among the relevant group? I mean, if something occurred 3% of the time, that means it’s possible but not what I’d call normal. At what point do you call it normal?

    Among the thousands of brides in my family tree from the present back to about 1600, only one married at age 14. That age doesn’t seem normal to me.

    I say this as someone who is not bothered in the slightest by historical plural marriage in general or Joseph’s plural marriage in particular. I simply don’t understand how your stats apply.

  2. Keller Post author

    Ardis, Thanks for your feedback. I agree that posting a survey of menarche statistics is a distraction, given how little I actually use them. This site: http://www.mum.org/menarage.htm does a bit better of making sense of the menarche data as I hope our book chapter will.

    As for a definition of normal, let me run with your example. I do not know how many female ancestors you have uncovered, but you are doubtlessly right that the lone 14 year old is abnormal compared to everyone else in your ancestor set. However that doesn’t tell us much about whether the marriage dynamics of your ancestors as a group as a whole matches the dynamics of the larger culture they came from.

    Now replace your ancestors with the set of all Joseph’s wives. Within that set Helen Mar Kimball (14.7) and Nancy Winchester (14.9 +/- .5) are abnormal compared to the ages of the rest of Joseph’s 33 plural wives. The question of normality can be framed this way: how does the percentage (3 to 6%)of Joseph’s wives 14 or less compare to percentage of brides that age nationally in 1840 (1.9%) ? Based on this one could either argue that Joseph’s rate was twice as high and not normal, or the sample size on N=33 is not all that significant. Of course Joseph looks better against frontier or Midwest marriage cohorts rather than the nationwide like I am doing here.

    That question can be re-asked for all the teen ages.

    JS: 15 (6%) 16 (15%) 17 (24%) 18 (24%) 19 (30%)
    1840: 15 (5.6%) 16 (12.3%) 17 (22%) 18 (32%) 19 (43%)

    As Joseph married teenagers close to the same frequency as his male peers he could be considered normal with room to spare. I could and likely will tighten up this definition of normal.

    Of course these teenage bride % can be re-compared by redefining Joseph’s peers to be males in their mid 30s. But that is something that has been explored elsewhere by Greg Smith and in the comments of my previous FAIR blog.

  3. Keller Post author

    Could you please provide a short statement that — even if it is not precise due to its brevity — summarizes your thesis? Something like “We estimate that x% of brides in Joseph’s time married before the age of 16, and we reach this conclusion by …”


    “We estimate that 5.6% of brides in 1840 married before the age of 16, and we reach this conclusion by assuming that birth cohorts followed a Coale-McNeil distribution with mean 22.4, minimum age 13.5, and total marriage rate of 93%; and then transforming birth cohorts into a marriage cohort. Since only 2 of 33 (6%) of Joseph’s plural brides were less than 16, we conclude his marriage practices were normal compared to all his male peers marrying in the same time frame.

  4. Ardis E. Parshall

    Thanks, Keller. While I still don’t understand your figures, at least I can better understand how you’re getting there.

    If I understand your definition of “normal,” then, Joseph’s marriages were normal not because it was normal for under-16-year-old girls to marry, but because his marriages don’t involve under-16-year-old brides any more frequently than the marriages of the general population. Yes?

    FYI, my own database names roughly 12,000 brides whose age at marriage is known, although spread across 400 years, virtually all in North America. Only one 14-year-old bride among ’em.

    Thanks for your careful replies, and especially for not assuming that because I had a question I must be some Joseph Smith-hating ranting anti-Mormon lunatic.

  5. Steve

    I accept polygamy as a part of my mormon heritage and it does not effect my testimony one way or the other. I believe in the restored gospel because of what it does for my life and other spiritual reasons. I have read some but do not know a lot about polygamy. I was wondering what we know about Josephs decedents. Do we have any record of Josephs children accept from Emma? It would seem that if I was one of Josephs descendents I would wont it to be known.

  6. Keller

    Ardis, I like the way you phrase my test for normalcy.

    Great work with your genealogy. I can see why you might be skeptical of the numbers I am reporting.

    I have a busy day today, but I will see what I can do to make it so blog readers can reproduce my numbers for 1880 (the earliest census that it is relatively easy to do so).

  7. Steve

    Thanks that was very interesting. As I understand LDS theology we don’t have many of the same problems with sex or the human body that many or our Christian brothers of other faiths have had threw history and i would not have a problem if Joseph had sexual relations with his wife’s as long as the lord required polygamy of the early saints which i must accept because I believe the fruits of my faith are good. But it is hard to show that Joseph was a great womanizer in a time before effective forms of birth control and not have his descendents coming out of the woodwork to claim their status as his descendents.

  8. Coffinberry

    To some of the arguments against the likelihood of 19th century ‘teen’ marriage, wouldn’t contemporary popular literature argue the opposite? (Thinking of “Little Women,” for example… IIRC, Meg was married at 18, and Amy at 16 or therabouts.) I think a canvas of female characters in novels of the time might give some indication of what was considered appropriate and what was not.

  9. Velska

    Just to add to the statistical idea of “normalcy”: If it was legal to marry a girl of 12, it must not have been too far-fetched for a 14-year old to be married.

    My great-grandmother was married off at 11, and my grandmother was married at 17 (mid-to-late 19th cent.) though my g-grandmother didn’t have children until much later.

  10. Ardis E. Parshall

    Velska, where and when was your great-grandmother married at 11? I have a very, VERY difficult time believing that such a thing happened in North America (which, of course, you did not say was the case), even in the Deep South where so many of my own family lines lead.

  11. Keller

    Here is a brief tutorial on how to reproduce statistics from the 1880 census if you know how to use a spreadsheet.

    1, Extact data from IPUMS site.

    Fill in edit boxes as follows:
    Row: marst(r:1-5;6)
    Column: age(12-55)
    Selection Filter: sex(2) race(100)
    Weight: None

    Under “Table Options” change Percentaging to 3 or more decimals.

    Now click the “Run the Table” button.

    A table should pop that 4 Rows: 1) a header with ages 12-55, 2) married population at each age (% in bold), 3) single (never married) population, 4) total white female population.

    So you can notice in the results that 24 out of 4537 14 year olds had been married. There was even a 12 year old in this 1% sample. A trip to ancestry.com helped raise my confidence that IPUMS data is representational and reliable.

    You should have 14 (.53%) … 19 (23.9) 20 (34.6) entries among others in your table. Please note that the average 14 year old is actually 14.5 and the average 19 year old is 20.5 and etc. This means that in order to find the number married in the synthetic birth cohort married as teens you would have estimate the marriage rate for when the group has an average age of 20.0. We will do this later.

    Step 2 Cut and Paste rows into a spread sheet.

    Use unformatted text pasting option and delete unnecessary numbers. You need the percentages from row 2 and the totals from row 3.

    Step 3 Take a scaled running average of the row you pasted the % in . The formula is “=(A1+B1)/2/0.929” for the first cell in a new row which can be dragged over AQ column to the right by clicking on the the square bottom right hand corner dot.

    You might need to change the formatting of your result row to see more decimals.

    The results of this exercise 1) eliminate the 7.1% who never marry from the synthetic birth cohort. 2) interpolate percentages (frequencies or cumulative marriage rates) so they correspond to birthdays milestones instead of midpoints between birthdays.

    Now you should have row entries (among others):
    14 (.93%) … 19 (31.5%)

    These numbers are the age-independent marriage rates. You could say for example “31.5% of women (who would eventually marry) born in 1860 married as teenagers. If you skip the divide by .929 step, you could remove the parenthetical and say “29.3% of women born in 1860 were married as teenagers.” You might want to add caveats that you are referring to whites based on nation-wide data from 1880.

    When using the 1880 census, you really only can make statements about how many 1861er (meaning born in 1861) were married by age 19, how many 1862er were married by 18, etc. If you substitute the marriage rates of 1855ers in 1880 (which are known) to project the rates of 1860ers in 1885 (which are not known) you are utilizing what is known as a synthetic birth cohort.

  12. Keller Post author

    I can’t figure an easy way to show you guys how to calculate age-dependent numbers. This is where I rely on mathematical models.

    Also please note that I have had to go back and update numbers in my blog and comments because I made an error in my computer program that was a 1/2 year to high. I will probably be tweaking things between now and when I get published to make sure I get thinks right.

  13. Stan

    “we conclude his marriage practices were normal compared to all his male peers marrying in the same time frame.”

    Except, of course, that they were plural marriages. 🙂
    I’m curious if your post is implying that because a small percentage of marriages in Joseph Smith time were to young women, Joseph Smith was justified in marrying a small percentage of young women.

  14. Keller

    Stan, Good point about plural marriage being abnormal. When contemporary critics of Joseph Smith complained about his marital practices it was usually regarding the plural-ness and not the bride’s ages. So my statement is just about bride’s ages and doesn’t even consider age differences.

    As for implication, I think I will make it clear that is exactly what I will arguing for in the paper (more so than I do in this blog.) I can not think of a fairer test for normalcy (for ages). Judging Joseph Smith by modern standards is presentism and should be done cautiously. Yes, by today’s standards 19th century plural marriage is bad (I agree that it drove down marital ages and increased age differentials in the early Utah period), but 19th century monogamy had its problems as well.

    When some of these statistics have been presented to critics, the early response has been to shift their arguments to complaining that Joseph Smith wasn’t so much better than his contemporary society.

  15. onika

    This is slightly off topic, but I was reading Mary Lightner’s autobiography and it sounds like she got baptized after she was sealed to Joseph Smith since the baptism was right before she left Joseph. Can you clarify for me?

  16. [email protected] [email protected]


    What I would like to know is if it was ‘normal’ 19th century behavior for 16 year old girls to marry men 23 years their senior…not to mention, already married…

  17. Keller

    I haven’t done any statistical searching about what percentage of non-Mormons were simultaneously married to multiple women. It would be hard to know where to start on that question given that bigamists attempted to conceal their extra marriages.

    Some notes I have on age differences:

    What does the Nauvoo and 1850 Census say about the male cohort aged 34-38 and female cohort aged less than 20?

    Husbands older All | F(<20) | M(34-38) | Joseph
    5-9 years | 30.9/32.2 | 49.0/38.6 | 9.3/53.9 | 15.2
    10+ years | 15.1/17.2 | 16.8/21.1 | 67.4/30.8 | 48.5

    Notes: % are 1850 US/Nauvoo in the applicable columns. The sample size for M(34-38) for census is 43, for Nauvoo 13, for Joseph Smith 33. The sample size for 1850 US F(<20) is 314, for Nauvoo 57.

    Here is an interesting statistic. The 1910 census is the first to have information about remarriages. I looked at just men who were remarrying in 1910 that were aged 35-37 (JS's for 31 wives). That matched about 85 men over half of which (47) married a single female. I checked the age differences and found that the men averaged 11.51 years older. In contrast Joseph Smith's single wives (17 by my count) were 12.29 years younger. However 9/17 ~55% were teenagers compared to only ~24% for the 1910 men's wives.

  18. David Wills

    Just a side note, but “teenagers” did not exist until about the 1950’s. Back in the day, you were a child until you entered the adult world, whereupon you took on all that implies.


  19. Keller Post author

    Good stuff DW. I quoted you when I responded to a private inquiry which I thought would be useful to post here. I am summarizing some remarks below to preserve the respondents anonymity.

    [Respondent] Younger marital ages back then doesn’t justify Joseph marrying back then. If God was really leading the prophet He would have stepped in and prevented it.

    [Me] The social dynamics were profoundly different in the early to mid 19th century. Let us play the what-if game and pretend our society’s modern values are identical to God’s ideals. We will put aside speculating that He may not be thrilled about rising pre-marital sex rates [and the message that this is OK with birth control, abortion, or adoption or if there isn’t too big of an age or power gap between partners], the use of cohabitation to delay commitment, divorce rates, low birthrates, an extended childhood that has resulted in a lot of slacker adolescents, etc. Putting that aside, let us suppose that God had revealed to Joseph or Brigham Young that they should enforce a mandatory marital age of say 18 (as most states have it since the 1960s-1970s compared to 12 in the early 1800s and 14 around the turn of the century.)

    I think such a policy would have been a disaster for the LDS church. Though led by a prophet, revelations had to be accepted by common consent of the people and people could pick and choose whether they would individually put into practice things such as our hypothetical, higher-than-conventional minimum age law. The prophet would have had little basis to explain a reason behind this policy that countered the social wisdom of the time. Lacking any rational or empirical basis on which he could persuade the Saints to delay marriage, it is likely that many would follow their hormones and ignore the policy or think the policy unwise or unduly controlling and apostatize. For those faithful to the policy, a lower % of mothers would be able to live to see their children reach adulthood given the shorter life expectancies in the 19C (~37-45 years). Faithful Mormons would have had fewer children than the rest of frontier America because of later starts. This would have allowing Utah to quickly be over-ran by “Gentiles” so the Saints would have had less of a chance to establish a separate identity through democratic means.

    So even if God were to agree with the argument that “14 year olds have never been mentally, socially, or sexually mature enough to make a rational decision about marriage and hence shouldn’t be eligible.” I think He has to pick His battles. Would it really have been better for Him to recommend a policy that would greatly curtail the growth of the LDS Church and erode its foundational values (such has happened to the RLDS Church) or allow that a small percentage of Mormon females would be asked to grow up as fast or a little faster than their non-Mormon contemporaries?

    It might be easy to characterize my defense as an everybody-else-was-doing-it-so-why-not-Joseph-Smith and the early Saints? I will admit that I often expect the Saints to be better than their ambient society and the prophets to be enlightened. For some things I subjectively value, this is the case that gets born out statistically. For other things, it can be depressing to see how poorly we are or have been as a peculiar people. The key for me is to have realistic expectations about human weakness. When it comes to historical differences, I try to have a scholarly humility and realize that there is a lot I don’t understand and projecting current social dynamics on the past is a barrier to seeing things from an older cultural milieu.

    [Respondent] A graph of average marital age from 1800-2000 challenges the idea that marital ages have significantly gone up at least not before 1980.

    [Me] When I observe that brides married younger back in 1840, I am primarily concerned with making comparisons with what is happening now. In 2007 only 10% of new brides were teens whereas 50-60% were teens during historically low years like 1800 and 1960. It is true that 1960 statistics weren’t much different than 1800 (except no 12 and 13 year olds were married in 1960 in census samples.) But things have changed so rapidly since then that is almost a different world.

    I don’t think Joseph Smith’s marriages to 14 year olds would have had much traction as a criticism against him in 1960 (except among social activists alarmed by baby boom consequences). Plural marriage history and social studies began to published in the mid-seventies and even then there seems to have been only mild criticism of Joseph Smith wives’ ages (or Utah Saints). It is only when we get in the late 2000s that critics have been especially shrill.

    [Respondent] 14 year olds have never been mentally, socially, or sexually mature enough to make a rational decision about marriage and hence aren’t eligible.

    An 18 year old wife would not have much maturity advantages over a 14 year old wife in frontier America. As one commenter quipped on my blog today. “Just a side note, but ‘teenagers’ did not exist until about the 1950’s. Back in the day, you were a child until you entered the adult world, whereupon you took on all that implies.” By age 14, a young woman (again discussing 19C and not current trends) would have already received all the academic education she would receive and could qualify to work any job an 18 year old could do (especially homemaking tasks and things considered women’s work). There wasn’t much difference in social standing once married. Being married was an indicator of one’s maturity more so than one’s age.

    The sexual maturity issue is more complex than I want to go into right now, but observe there was less sexual experimentation, sex ed, and sex in the media and entertainment. So after hitting puberty, I can’t think of much that can be measured that would prepare an 18 year old more than a 14 year old for marriage on the 19C frontier. I have listed a few papers on marriage timing theory in my blogs, but this comment is getting long as it is to spell out more marriage market dynamics. One thing to consider, though. On the male side of the equation, marriage timing was driven by economics and how soon a young man could set up an independent household. Young women likewise valued becoming independent and got the itch to move out of their parent’s house and marriage was the most common way to do that.

    [Respondent] An omniscient, omnipotent, all loving God would give advanced knowledge about the ideal marital age to his prophet and bring about compliance.

    [Me]I of course don’t like playing God. It usually gets me in trouble speculating about why he doesn’t intervene more often and instead allows His children the agency to make their own choices. Or why He allows natural social dynamics to influence those choices. Or why He often waits for scientific break-throughs and advances in social sciences before inspiring change through these other means. There are much more troublesome manifestations of the Problem of Evil that classical theists (with their understanding of Gods absolute Omni-properties) have to deal with. I am more of an open theist myself.

    Hardly any non-Mormon Christians spends much time wrestling with why God allowed some of their ancestors to get married in the mid-teens. The New Testament does not record any comments from Jesus condemning the typical bride’s age of his day of 12 or 13 (this shows up in such sources as Jewish rabbinical literature and Roman law and medical studies.) Christians for centuries did not question traditions that God brought about Mary’s conception of Jesus when she was 12.

    This is one of those cases that a criticism against Joseph Smith also work against Christ, so I think we can expect atheist critics to continue to pound away and ignore social context.

  20. Keller Post author

    Some notes about marital timing in the 19C.

    The latest draft of my section of the paper explains a statistical benchmark for minimum age that has dominated marriage age research for almost 40 years (The Coale McNeil model). In 1880 it ranged from 13.0 in the South to about 14.2 in the NE IIRC. Marriage age = age at menarche + waiting time to meet future spouse + courtship time. The rich Southerners would have balls to bring in suitors soon after their daughters reached eligibility. In general the rich and those on the frontier (farmers, especially where new land was available) married younger wives. For Joseph Smith, I think his youngest future wives likely met him early (Joseph was socially active) and had shorter courtship times (JS was under a lot of pressure and parents aided in making marriages semi-arranged). So yes Joseph is a little abnormal in his marriage profile for wives 14 years or less, but all other teen ages he tracks the national profile for 1840 fairly closely. I may do stats test to see if its in the margin of error.

  21. Rust

    My wife’s grandmother was raised in the Baptist faith in Alabama, born in 1898. She married her first husband at age fourteen. In a conversation before her death, I asked her why she got married so young. She told me that she was raised by her mother and grandmother who “liked to work me to death”. So she married her first husband who was 28, twice her age. She said she wanted to be out on her own and have her husband take care of her. She was tired of being told what to do. I think many women from that era married young for similar reasons due to tension in their family of origin and the desire to be out on their own. What teenagers today don’t think they know everything and have life figured out? Today, society’s values have changed. If a 28 year old man tries to marry a 14 year old girl, he might find himself in jail.

  22. KT Nelson

    For what it’s worth, my great-great grandmother married at 14 to a man ten years her senior, and had her first (and only) child a year later. She lived in Columbia, Pennsylvania, and was the daughter of a successful businessman and married a man with two doctoral degrees, so this wasn’t the backwoods of the South. Other female relatives married at 15, so I can’t imagine it was that unusual.

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