The Mormon-India connection

What links Mormonism and India? The Church of Latter Day Saints has a presence in India

Sati by T. Rowlandson (1815, Wellcome Collection)

today. And like other historians, scholars of South Asian history avail themselves of the genealogical riches of Mormon archives in Utah like the Family History Library. (Conversion into the faith can cover previous generations through baptism by proxy.)

There’s also a lesser-known jurisprudential connection. Between the 1870s and the 1940s, judges in India, England and the US linked India and Mormonism conceptually.

Sometimes, the connection was calm and pragmatic. The mechanics of Mormon polygyny–whether the marriage was valid in the state where it was created, whether it would be recognized in the place the couple moved to, whether the new jurisdiction could grant a divorce–could offer guidance on potentially polygynous marriages across the British Empire, including Muslim and Hindu marriages created in India. The case of Baindail  v. Baindail [(1946) 1 All E.R. 342] was an English case like this. An Indian man had entered into a marriage under Hindu personal law in India, then later went through a marriage ceremony with an English woman in England. When she discovered that her partner was already married to a Hindu woman in India, the English woman filed for nullity. The English Court of Appeal in this case discussed at length the 1866 case of Hyde v. Hyde (L.R. 1 P.&D.), an English divorce case involving a Mormon couple in England who had married in the US  “at a time when polygamy was recognized by the Mormon State” (Utah). Hyde was also cited by the Indian courts in divorce cases involving Muslim and Hindu converts to Christianity like the 1870 case of Zuburdust Khan v. his wife (2 NWP HCt Reports 370) and the 1890 case of Perianayakam v. Pottukanni and another (ILR 14 Madras 382).

Other times, though, the connection reflected fear. American judges slid from Mormon polygyny in the US into panicky visions of moral relativism uncaged. This carried them to India–or Indians to them.

Here’s what judges in the US Supreme Court said in the famous 1878 case of Reynolds v. US (98 U.S. 145), as they explained why the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion applied only to belief, not practice:

Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her dead husband, would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice?

Arguing for the US government, Attorney General Devens made a slippery slope argument against Reynolds’ claim that polygamy should go unpunished as an article of religious faith. The New York Times summarized his argument thus (“Is Polygamy a crime?”,15 Nov. 1878, 4):

under this rigid interpretation of the Constitution, a sect of East Indian Thugs who should settle in the Territories [like Utah] might commit murder with impunity, on the ground that it was sanctioned by their system of religious belief.

If the court allowed Mormon plural marriage, wouldn’t it soon have to permit sati and thuggee killings? Judges in faraway corners of the common-law world laced their soliloquys on the dangers of religio-legal pluralism with examples from South Asia.

Today, the polyamory movement is remaking itself in the “love is love” idiom used so effectively by the same-sex marriage movement. My colleague Gwendolyn Leachman has written about the relationship between these two social movements here, with Hadar Aviram. It is worth remembering that before group love was analogized to gay love, it was associated with a very different set of practices. Specifically, the longer and more colonial history of associations surrounding plural marriage once linked Mormons and South Asia through case law.