The history of Mormon polygamy is widely misunderstood, and many people still believe that Mormons (officially members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) practice plural marriage today. However, Mormon polygamy has not been practiced since 1890.
When Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was reading through the Bible, he would pray to God for enlightenment on certain principles and practices which he read about and did not fully understand. One of these was the practice of plural marriage in the Old Testament. When Joseph enquired of the Lord on this matter, he was told:
Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.
David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me.
David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord (D&C 132:37–39).
This is significant revelation on the matter of plural marriage, but it was not all Joseph received. God commanded Joseph to re-institute the law of plural marriage (now referred to as Mormon polygamy). There have been many speculations on why God commanded Joseph to re-institute this practice, but ultimately it was a trial of obedience. Only a very small percentage of the Saints were ever asked to live the law of Mormon polygamy. People were not excited about this, including Joseph himself. In fact, records show that an angel came to Joseph with a drawn sword telling Joseph that he would be destroyed if he procrastinated introducing this law to the people any longer.
When Mormon polygamy was initially practiced, plural marriage was not explicitly against the law, but it was against tradition in the society the new Saints were living in. Mormon doctrine showed that when God commanded His people to practice polygamy, it was not a sin and came with many blessings, but it was still a difficult thing to do.
Persecution raged against the Saints at this time because of the practice of Mormon polygamy. The Saints were kicked out of their homes again and again. They constantly appealed to law enforcement to protect them, because they were exercising the freedom of religion as granted in the U.S. Constitution, but they were repeatedly denied justice and protection.
Eventually laws were passed which did make plural marriages illegal. However, the Saints were still living Mormon polygamy under the commandment of God, which transcends the laws of men. Some Church leaders went into hiding to protect their families. Eventually, God revealed to then-prophet Wilford Woodruff that He withdrew the commandment to practice polygamy. God did this to protect the Saints from further persecution at this time. In 1890, Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, now canonized as scripture in Official Declaration—1 in the Doctrine and Covenants. From this time forward, no more plural marriages were sanctified by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thus, Mormon polygamy has not been a practice for more than 100 years.
There are splinter groups who call themselves Mormons today, who continue the practice of polygamy. However, they are not officially connected with the Mormon Church in any way. Plural marriage is an offense worthy of excommunication from the Mormon Church today. Those Mormons who had already entered into plural marriages prior to 1890 continued to support each other in those marriages, but no more Mormon polygamous marriages have been performed since then.
Many misconceptions persist about when Mormon polygamy was in practice. The truth is that no women were ever forced into plural marriages. Only a small percentage of members of the Mormon Church ever practiced polygamy. Divorce was available to women who had chosen to enter a plural marriage and then, for whatever reason, decided they no longer wanted to participate in such a marriage. Many women enjoyed the benefits which plural marriages brought to them. There were more women to complete the chores and look after the children, allowing much more free time to everybody. Mormon polygamy was never an oppressive institution, and no one’s free will was ever taken away in regard to entering into a plural marriage.