Three Conversions to Mormon Polygamy: David, Ella, & Ida Udall
In 1882, Ella Stewart Udall and her husband David King Udall had a happy life as a frontier couple. David ran a store in St. Johns, Arizona and led their local congregation, and they had a two-year-old daughter, Pearl. But on May 25, the family participated in a ceremony deemed illegal by the Edmunds Act of 1882: David married a second wife, Ida Hunt Udall. They were all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (in that time often nicknamed Mormons), which taught plural marriage to its members as a central religious practice. Yet Church membership alone did not persuade Euro-Americans with Protestant roots to accept polygamy, a practice the broader United States abhorred. All three came to accept plural marriage in different ways, often based on lifetime pondering and experiences.
David Udall began considering polygamy while serving as bishop of the St. Johns ward. During that time, Church prophet-president John Taylor encouraged all Church leaders to practice polygamy. For David, this was difficult. His father’s plural marriage was unhappy, so David grew up skeptical of polygamy. In his memoir, David reported he assented to polygamy because of “only the deepest religious conviction,” and many Latter-day Saints of the era couched their acceptance of polygamy in similarly spiritual terms. Some family histories even describe “conversions” to polygamy, much as one might describe conversion to a faith.
David’s attitude softened after he married Ella Stewart. Ella also grew up in a plural family, but both wives, Margery and Macy Wilkerson, were sisters and got along well. Ella’s mother Margery died when Ella was only fifteen, and Macy raised her thereafter, leading Ella to develop a positive attitude toward polygamy But while Ella was open-minded in the abstract, she may have been hesitant about participating in polygamy herself. David occasionally broached the subject of marrying a second wife, but in every case before Ida, Ella disapproved of his suggested spouse, and David dropped the matter each time.
Ida entered the Udalls’ lives in 1881, when David hired her as a clerk for his Co-op store in St. Johns. At the time, she had a boyfriend named Johnny Murdock in Beaver, Utah. Unlike Ella, Ida’s parents were not polygamists during her childhood, so she had not grown up with plural marriage in her immediate family. Instead, Ida converted to polygamy in 1880 when she met Jesse N. Smith, president of the Eastern Arizona Stake, and his wives Emma Seraphine West and Mary Aikens. Ida saw a “distinct spiritual quality” in the family and an “unselfish devotion between” Emma and Mary. Ida was so impressed that she resolved to also have a plural marriage. When Johnny Murdock, her boyfriend from Beaver, wrote to her with a marriage proposal, Ida promptly broke off the relationship because Murdock did not want to practice polygamy, and Ida did.
By 1881, when Ida moved to St. Johns and began working at David’s Co-op, she, Ella, and David each accepted plural marriage, though each for different reasons and to different extents. After Ida broke up with Murdock, David courted her, and he proposed in January 1882. Before accepting, Ida left St. Johns for Snowflake, and she asked Ella by letter for her consent to the proposal:
I cannot allow another day to pass by without writing you to ascertain if possible your true feelings upon… the possibility or probability of my becoming at some future day a member of your family… I cannot allow the matter to go farther, without first having received some assurance of your willingness to such a step being taken, at least that you have no more serious objections to me than you would to any other under like circumstances.
Two months later, Ella wrote back:
The subject in question has caused me a great amount of pain and sorrow, more perhaps than you could imagine, yet I feel as I have from the beginning, that if it is the Lord’s will I am perfectly willing to try to endure it and trust it will be overruled for the best good of all. My feelings are such that I can write but briefly on this subject.
With kind regards to all, I remain your friend.
Ella's blessing on the union was unenthusiastic, but she, Ida, and David reached an agreement. In May, David and Ida married in the St. George, Utah Temple, and in her journal entry for that day, Ida observed she had two new relationships:
When he [David] bade me goodnight, the sacred name of wife was whispered for the first time in my ear, causing my heart to flutter with a strange new happiness. During the night, Ella, being unable to sleep, came into my room, and mentioned for the first time our relationship to each other, and we talked long and earnestly of our hopes and desires for the future, both feeling much happier for the same.
In the coming years, anti-polygamy laws, Ida going into hiding for two years, David’s arrest and imprisonment, tensions over how to balance the marriage, and financial hardship would all combine to complicate these “hopes and desires.” But at least for that May night in St. George, they were a happy family.