Recently I have been gathering notes to do some rewrites on the FAIR wiki regarding Brigham Young’s views on race mixing. Then I ran across Connell O’Donovan’s 2009 Sunstone West article . O’Donovan has uncovered many Mormon specific sources on attitudes and reactions to interracial unions. When I read his earlier article on Walker Lewis, I wished for more of an attempt to contextualize Brigham Young’s thoughts with those of his contemporaries. In the Sunstone article, O’Donovan delivers. He gives an overview of anti-miscegenation laws and attempts to repeal them over a long stretch of times. He also places Brigham’s views that “mulattos are like mules” and hence could not (or should not ) reproduce very well was within the norm of the scientific thought of his day. Needless to say, none of these attitudes belong in today’s more enlightened society or the LDS Church.
Primarily as a result of O’Donovan’s research in his prior JWHA article on Walker Lewis  and some fine blogging at Juvenile Instructor, I have become convinced that Brigham’s views on interracial marriage were an important part of why the priesthood ban no longer allowed for exceptions after 1847. After examining the main primary sources I have updated a wiki entry on the origins of the priesthood ban accordingly.
That isn’t to say that I don’t have some reservation about some of O’Donovan’s treatment. In my indirect review of the Walker Lewis article, I disagreed with his take that if Brigham had had his way, Danites would have offed a mixed race couple. O’Donovan presents his case about blood atonement a little better this time around, but I will argue in PART II that it is still lacking. I have also been concerned when O’Donovan imputes various emotions to persons.
I noticed that, but not in writing, that O’Donovan made a lengthy aside about William Smith’s infidelities in the Lewis bio that seemed to serve no purpose other than to embarrass a general authority. I didn’t see much point in covering Brigham Young’s marriage with Augusta Cobb, which has no direct bearing on interracial marriages. That isn’t to say that no insight can be gained by comparing one form of historically forbidden marriages to another. However, I think O’Donovan handling of the Cobb-Young marriage clouds any insight that could potentially be gained. I don’t think I am helping matters much by focusing a good chunk of this review on it.
The Cobb-Young Marriage
O’Donovan asserts that “church leaders forbade any LDS man from marrying a woman who was not single, widowed, or divorced.” That may have been the general rule but there are notable exceptions to it, some even legal.
- Some 50 years earlier the Jackson-Robards marriage had created quite a stir. Robards had separated from her husband in Kentucky December 1790 and, believing herself to be divorced, eloped with Andrew Jackson to Mississippi the next August. Although technically illegal, telling Andrew Jackson that he or his wife was an adulterer would likely land one in a duel (AJ had at least 13) or even killed (1 duel casualty).
- A legal, church sanctioned remarriage occurred between Newell Knight and undivorced Lydia Bailey (believed not to be a widow) in Ohio . A woman abandoned by her husband for over three years could remarry without a formal divorce according to an 1824 Ohio bigamy statute. It had been recently bumped up to five years, but the clerks and parties involved were unaware of that.
- The 1831 Illinois bigamy law had clause that allowed remarriage without a divorce like Ohio after a five year absence of the spouse.
- “Serial bigamy was a form of marital refashioning …. A divorce became necessary only when there was a significant amount of property to be divided. Because of its criminal connotations, a divorce sometimes offered a useful mechanism for allowing the ‘innocent’ victim of the guilty spouse to reclaim honor and an identity within an established community. … The characteristic forms of marital escape, however, were abandonment and desertion—unsullied by any public state action. A husband or, less often, a wife would leave and go elsewhere, probably to remarry” 
- The Pratt-McClean marriage created quite a scandal within and without Mormonism. The ex-husband resorted in extra-legal violence rather than rely on marriage laws.
O’Donovan’s contention that Brigham Young’s Nov. 1843 marriage with Augusta Cobb was considered adulterous by Mormon standards falls flat. I will grant that a two month separation from her ex-husband is well short of Illinois’ five year separation period for allowing remarriage without a divorce. It is also short of meeting residency requirements and two years of marital separation for filing for divorce in Illinois, had Augusta Cobb desired to do so on that basis. Divorce laws in the frontier Midwest were the most liberal in the country  and even were designed to attract migrating married women separating from their husbands. The frontier had imbalanced male-female ratios and employed competitive strategies to increase the marriage pool.
Only Mormons who were unaware or unreceptive of Joseph Smith’s 1843 plural marriage revelation (esp. D&C 132:61-63) would think that Brigham Young had entered into an adulterous relationship after leaving her legal husband. Polyandrous marriages could be authorized under certain conditions provided that wife wasn’t “with” or “vowed to” (“under this law”) both husbands at once. Brigham Young’s marriage “for eternity” would seem to fit right in with Joseph Smith’s polyandrous marriage (especially the subset of wives who had non-Mormon husbands). Gregory L. Smith  and Brian C. Hales  have recent treatments on the subject which should be cited and engaged with from now on. Augusta Cobbs’ obituary  indicates a high degree of Mormon respect for a woman that gave up everything (including wealth and family) for the Gospel’s sake.
O’Donovan calls the judges handling Mr. Cobbs’ divorce hearings in Massachusetts as the activist judges of their day. However, they do not appear to be doing anything ground-breaking beyond their own state with Cobb v. Cobb, despite the publicity it received. It appears to be an open and shut case as adultery was accepted grounds for divorce there. I am not familiar with the particulars of testimony in the case as O’Donovan is, but there is reason to be skeptical that Brigham consummated the plural marriage before the divorce. A non-Mormon descendant takes the position that was the case even after the divorce . Outside of Massachusetts’s jurisdiction, Brigham Young and Augusta Cobb were minimally affected by the eventual ruling. Thus Brigham had no reason to take out his marital frustration on so-called “inferiors” as O’Donovan imagines.
 Connell O’Donovan, “‘I would confine them to their own species’: LDS Historical Rhetoric & Praxis Regarding Marriage Between Whites and Blacks”, Sunstone Symposium West (2009).
 There was somewhat of a parallel debate on whether the offspring of plural unions were inferior to that of monogamous couplings. Dean Jessee in “Brigham Young’s Family: the Wilderness Years,” BYU Studies 19:4 (Summer 1979) gives an anecdote of one of Young’s wives being told her child was smarter because of plurality, much to that wife’s annoyance.
 Connell O’Donovan, “The Mormon Priesthood Ban & Elder Q. Walker Lewis: ‘An example for his more whiter brethren to follow,’” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal (2006).
 M. Scott Bradshaw, “Joseph Smith’s Performance of Marriages in Ohio,” Brigham Young University Studies 39:4 (2000): 7–22. PDF link.
 US Historical Encyclopedia, “Divorce and Marital Separation”
 Neal R. Feigenson, “Extraterritorial Recognition of Divorce Decrees in the Nineteenth Century” The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Apr., 1990), pp. 119-167
 Timothy Crumrin, “Women and the Law in Early 19th-century Indiana,” (Publication Forthcoming).
 Gregory L. Smith, “Joseph Smith and Polyandry” (Publication Forthcoming).
 Brian C. Hales, “The Joseph Smith-Sylvia Sessions Plural Sealing: Polyandry or Polygyny?” Mormon Historical Studies 9/1 (Spring 2008): 41–57.
 Obituary, Deseret Evening News (Feb. 4, 1886)
 Mary Caple, “She Who Shall be Nameless,” American Heritage Magazine, 16/2 (Feb. 1965)