Friday, May 15, 2009

Why I would like to have lunch with Amy Brown Lyman

Amy Brown Lyman has intrigued me for many years, and I would love to be able to talk to her over lunch and discover more about her mysterious and tragic life. She died less than a month after I was born, and it seems that many of her secrets died with her.

Amy Brown Lyman (February 7, 1872 – December 5, 1959) was born in Pleasant Grove, Utah Territory, the 23rd of 25 children born to her polygamist father. She became the eighth general president of the Relief Society and served from 1940 to 1945. In the spring of 1945 she was released at her request by President Heber J. Grant, due to a number of personal tragedies in her life. She spent the next fifteen years, until her death at age 87, serving in various social services organizations, and continuing the service that so marked her early life.

Amy Lyman founded and headed the LDS Church's social welfare department for 16 years. She also served a term as a member of the Utah House of Representatives. Prior to the Second World War, Amy accompanied her husband, Richard R. Lyman, to England where he presided over the European Mission of the church.

Amy Lyman's husband Richard became an apostle of the LDS Church in 1918. In 1921, Richard began counseling a woman who had been disfellowshipped for her earlier plural marriage to a man from whom she was now separated. Lyman arranged for her restoration to full Church membership in 1922. In 1925, he apparently entered into "a mutual covenant of plural marriage" with the woman. They exchanged marriage vows secretly. Theirs, it was said, was a marriage of love; they saw themselves as soul-mates. He was 55 years old, and she was 53.

In a fascinating tale of intrigue which remains shadowy and unclear to this day, Lyman attempted to live a celestial marriage in a day when the practice had been repudiated and forbidden. Plural marriages performed between 1890 and 1906 were allowed to continue to practice polygamy until those polygamists died off. But after the Reed Smoot hearings, Church leaders were careful not to sanction polygamy. Eighteen years after contracting his marriage, when the Apostle and his plural wife were in their 70's, the First Presidency became aware of the association. There is some question that politics were involved in the decision to investigate the matter. One commenter states:

"Elder Lyman was a reliable progressive ally of David O. McKay. Two younger conservative apostles, Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee followed Elder Lyman around for a couple of weeks and collected the data needed to make a good case against him in a court of law. Then they cooperated with then Police Chief J. Bracken Lee, a sometimes friend and sometime enemy of the Mormons, in orchestrating Lyman’s arrest and the public stunt associated with it."

It is reported that Elder Lyman was arrested while in bed with this second wife. Supposedly he was dragged out of his house and off to jail wearing only his old woolly Pioneer style garments with his hair sticking in every direction. I've never seen it, but there is said to be a photograph of Lyman looking worse than Warren Jeffs in the morning papers for everyone to see. (Has anyone seen this photograph or newspaper account?)

Other notes from contemporary autobiographies indicate that on Nov 9 George Albert Smith found out about Lyman's affair, was shocked, prayed, and assigned the case to Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee. When confronted, Lyman admitted the charges and made no defense. Richard seemed not to realize his wrong--he thought he would be reinstated in short order. Would it be possible for him to keep his office space and his secretary? Lyman was tried in the temple with 10 of the Apostles.

Richard Lyman was excommunicated on November 12, 1943 at age 73. The only official statement from the Church was a one-sentence announcement provided by the Quorum of the Twelve, stating that the ground for excommunication was violation of the Law of Chastity, which any new marriage post-second manifesto constituted.

Richard Lyman and his plural wife continued their nearly 30 year association until 2 years before Lyman was again baptized into the LDS Church, on October 27, 1954. For a time it was feared that Lyman would join the Fundamentalist movement. David O. McKay was instrumental in working with Lyman to bring him back to the Church. When Lyman was restored to fellowship, he did not come back as an Apostle. He served as a deacon. He humbly passed the sacrament in this capacity. His Melchizedek priesthood privileges were never restored. Lyman died in 1963 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Official Church channels might wish that we members remain circumspect and refrain from speculation about this unfortunate incident in the lives of these public figures. But Church history just happens to fascinate me. I'm especially curious when the lives of these historical figures coincide with matters of controversial Church doctrine and practice. How much, for example, did Richard Lyman's affair have to do with his belief in the principle of Celestial marriage? Richard was known as an outgoing, exhuberant man. He had a strong preoccupation with sex, and talked about it over the pulpit and in public. Some said he was embarrassing. Members who heard him speak in a student ward called him "inappropriate." He had a flirtatious manner and was faced with temptations while in the East that led President Grant to consider recalling him as Mission President. Was he only a weak man, or did he really have a higher motivation? Did he believe, as many Fundamentalists, that plural marriage was necessary for exaltation? Was Lyman's plural marriage unofficially sanctioned by the Church? There are rumors that some of the members of the Twelve continued to perform plural marriages even after the Reed Smoot trials in 1904-06. Is there any basis behind the claims that President Heber J. Grant performed the sealing of Lyman and his plural wife in the Logan Temple in 1925?

If I were friends with Amy, I'd certainly be nosy and want to know many things about how she felt about her husband's behavior. Some accounts present Richard as an unhappily married man whose first wife failed to provide for his needs. They suggest that Amy was a strong-willed, forceful, serious, reserved woman, whose duties kept her absent from the home. But I suspect there was more to it than that. What were the tensions that kept the two apart? And what kept them together following the excommunication and Richard's continuing association with his second wife? In Amy's autobiography she mentions Richard only twice--once as "my husband," and once as "Dr. Lyman."

There are so many questions surrounding this tragedy that I am curious about. I have not been able to find out the name of Lyman's paramour or any further information. Was the second wife excommunicated along with Lyman when they were discovered in bed together? Why didn't Amy seek a divorce following the excommunication? Family members have claimed that Amy Lyman was aware of the marriage and that the two families had Sunday dinner together once a month. What were Amy's sentiments concerning plural marriage? Under what circumstances did Lyman and his second wife finally separate in 1952? Why do we have so little information about the circumstances of the Lyman excommunication?

Amy Lyman seems to have been an woman who valued her privacy and was traumatized by the events that occurred in her family life. I'm sure she would be less than forthcoming with anyone who dared to probe into these circumstances in her life. But she was a fascinating woman with a tragic story. For many reasons, I'd love to have lunch with Amy Brown Lyman.


In The Doghouse said...

Wow, another episode of "All My Children" to say the least. So many unanswered questions... polygamy still holds so many unanswered questions for me. Can I come to lunch too?

Th. said...


I knew Lyman was excommunicated but that was it. I'd been vaguely curious, but now that I know more I'm intensely curious.

J. Stapley said...

David Hall has a bio of Amy Lyman forthcoming with Utah State University Press. I'm not sure how far he delves into this episode, but his work is top notch.

Anonymous said...

Come on, how can you use such a controversial quotation, as the one accusing two apostles of tailing a third, and not say who said this thing?

How can anyone evaluate such a statement without knowing who made it?

Wells said...

And what really irks me is: how did he get called to be an apostle with all that going on?

Heather P. said...

The last four pages of this article by Lavina Fielding Anderson tells the story in part. The woman was named Anna Jacobsen Hegsted.

Heather P. said...

These should be the dates of when articles were published about the excommunication:
Deseret News, Nov. 12, 1943
Los Angeles Times, Nov. 13, 1943
New York Times, Nov. 14, 1943
I haven't been able to look them up myself, and no page numbers were listed, but they were in the footnotes of a summer 1994 Dialogue article on Amy Lyman Brown by David Hall, if you have any way of looking up the newspaper articles. (Here's the Hall article.)

Bored in Vernal said...

Anonymous, my source for two apostles tailing a third was simply comment #34 made by "Mike" on a Times and Seasons post Never Look at the Trombones. But the Lavina Fielding Anderson source that Heather gives is much better. She states:

"...J. Reuben Clark, who had heard that Lyman was having an affair, assigned Harold B. Lee and Joseph Fielding Smith to follow him at night. They confirmed that he was meeting a woman. At Clark's request, Salt Lake City's police chief conducted a 'smashed-door raid,' discovering Lyman, age seventy-two, in bed with Anna Jacobsen Hegsted, age seventy-one. Lyman was excommunicated the next day..." (in Dialogue 31:3, p. 76)

Heather, thanks for the further info and the links!

Eliza said...

How is Richard Lyman Bushman related, does anyone know?

Tim said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the fascinating write up. The whole story really makes one think.

Anonymous said...

How can you quote as legitimate a post from a nut on the internet? Had you properly cited it people would have seen that NO ONE believed the original post! It's garbage-- nothing more than a strained conspiracy theory! By posting it you are adding legitmacy to this view that no true historian would even consider, not event the anti-mormon types.

Bored in Vernal said...

Anon, you have a point; however this particular crackpot theory is backed up by Lavina Fielding Anderson, an editor at the Journal of Mormon History. Her work is very careful and respected in Mormon history circles.

Ryan Lindgren said...

Your missing the real story. She worked with Jane Adams and is the mother of social welfare in Utah. That's the real story, and her husband is the side note

Ryan Lindgren said...

She's way more than a jilted spouse. She set up welfare, developmental center, and modern social work in Utah. She studied at hull house with Jane Adams. There is the real thing to talk to her about at lunch.

Anonymous said...

In talking with a now deceased descendant of Richard R Lyman, his comment about his ancestor was "it would have helped if his wife hadn't refused to sleep with him for 60 years." Sounds as though there were problems all around?

Leslie said...

Do you have a source for this part?

"Richard was known as an outgoing, exuberant man. He had a strong preoccupation with sex, and talked about it over the pulpit and in public. Some said he was embarrassing. Members who heard him speak in a student ward called him "inappropriate." He had a flirtatious manner and was faced with temptations while in the East that led President Grant to consider recalling him as Mission President."