Continuing misconceptions about the historical practice of polygamy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have beleaguered its members since the institution of the practice. Here we will attempt to answer some of the questions people still have about polygamy today. We will try to accurately portray the historical and religious environment surrounding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which church is frequently called the “Mormon Church” by mistake) during the period when polygamy was practiced.
Polygamy Is No Longer Practiced Today
First of all, to clear up a common misunderstanding, polygamy is not practiced today by any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To practice polygamy today will lead to excommunication. Gordon B. Hinckley, fifteenth president of The Church of Jesus Christ, said the following in October 1998:
I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law. They know they are in violation of the law. They are subject to its penalties. The Church, of course, has no jurisdiction whatever in this matter.
If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church. An article of our faith is binding upon us. It states, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (Articles of Faith 1:12). One cannot obey the law and disobey the law at the same time.
There is no such thing as a “Mormon Fundamentalist.” It is a contradiction to use the two words together.
Illegality of Polygamy Then and Now
This statement by President Hinckley may confuse some. Wasn’t polygamy always illegal in the United States? Wouldn’t this mean that when it was practiced those who practiced it were breaking the law? The short answer is yes, they were, but it is far more complex than that.
Bigamy was illegal in Illinois when the Saints were living in Nauvoo. Polygamy was declared illegal during an anti-polygamy (and largely anti-Mormon) crusade when the Saints were in Utah. Many Saints who practiced polygamy, and who firmly believed that they were being commanded by God to participate in this practice, were put in a difficult situation. Thus, for them, living the law of polygamy became a case of civil disobedience.
The decision to defy the [anti-polygamy laws] was a painful exception to an otherwise firm commitment to the rule of law and order. Significantly, however, in choosing to defy the law, the Latter-day Saints were actually following in an American tradition of civil disobedience. On various previous occasions, including the years before the Revolutionary War, Americans had found certain laws offensive to their fundamental values and had decided openly to violate them. . . . Even though declared constitutional, the law was still repugnant to all [the Saints’] values, and they were willing to face harassment, exile, or imprisonment rather than bow to its demands. (James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992], 401.)
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also felt their right to practice polygamy was protected by the United States Constitution’s protection of religious liberty. They argued in courts all the way up to the Supreme Court for their rights, but when the Supreme Court ruled against them in 1879, finding the anti-polygamy laws constituional, they continued to practice civil disobedience, believing God’s law was higher than man’s and that when man’s law contradicts God’s law, a faithful person’s conscience requires him or her to follow God’s law.
Why did the Saints abandon the practice of polygamy if they believed it was a commandment from God to practice it? Was it really just an excuse for men to justify immorality?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to receive criticism both for the fact that it ever promoted the practice of polygamy and, ironically, that it abandoned it. Some say it was weak of Church leaders to abandon the practice once pressure from the government peaked. Critics say it must be obvious it was never really part of God’s commandment because it brought so much grief to those who practiced it, as well as the Church as a whole. In addition, if leaders gave up, so to speak, obviously God was not on their side.
A full answer to this idea is beyond the scope of this article, but a summary is included here, along with suggestions for more in-depth reading for the interested. The short but firm answer to this argument is that those who were called to live this law did so after receiving very personal and unquestionable verification that God was commanding them to do so. Looking at just a sampling of personal accounts on this matter soon put this to rest. Whether or not the observer believes that God issued the commandment or not, it is clear that those who lived it believed God had. While it may seem to the outsider that God abandoned those who lived polygamy to the vengeance of its opponents, there are many undeniable benefits that came to the Saints for living the law despite fierce opposition. These benefits will be discussed later, but first, here are some personal accounts of people who lived the law of polygamy.
John Taylor, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remarked:
I had always entertained strict ideas of virtue and I felt as a married man that this [polygamy] was to me . . . an appalling thing to do . . . Nothing but a knowledge of God, and the revelations of God . . . could have induced me to embrace such a principle as this . . . We [the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles] seemed to put off as far as we could, what might be termed the evil day. (Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 89.)
Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith as president of the Church following Joseph’s martyrdom, said of his initial reaction to the doctrine of polygamy:
Some of these my brethren know what my feelings were at the time Joseph revealed the doctrine; I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin, knowing the toil and labor that my body would have to undergo; and I have had to examine myself, from that day to this, and watch my faith, and carefully meditate, lest I should be found desiring the grave more than I ought to do (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 3:266).
Margaret Cooper West, a convert to the Church, recorded her own experience with being converted to the law of polygamy:
One day one of my sisters said to me, “Do you believe in the Spiritual Wife Doctrine? I said, “No.”
She said, “If Brother Joseph was to tell you he had a revelation and you must be his spiritual wife, [what] would you say?” I would say, “You may go to hell with your revelations.” And I was raving mad and said I would not believe it if I was to hear the Lord tell an angel to come and tell me, I thought he would do it for a trial as he did to Abraham in telling him to offer up his son.
In such ways I fretted. My husband did not believe it was right and it appeared that the devil had the advantage. I was taken sick and also several of the children and the doctor was called for the first time since we joined the Church. I came near to death though I was convinced of my wrong before I was taken sick. It came to me like this.
My husband and I were going to meeting and as I opened the gate all creation came before me and they seemed as the grass of the field for multitudes. I saw Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob living the Celestial law. Then Joseph and his brethren stood before me and I could feel as it were the pain that pierced their heart when they were told that Principle must come forth in this generation. I said in my heart, “It is enough, I will never fight that Principle again.”
Sometimes full acceptance of the principal took time. The people living this and other commandments were not perfect, and they made mistakes. Tamer Washburn struggled for a long time after her husband took a second wife, even though she liked the woman. Her daughter recorded in a biography of her mother:
Tamer was a social person, and usually very optimistic, yet she was capable of very intense feelings. Flora’s daughter Lorena related, “Tamer told me how hard it was to live in plural marriage, and for a long time she was unkind to my mother although she loved mother. She prayed often for strength, and God finally gave her victory over herself. After that, plural marriage ceased to be a trial, and my mother became one of her best earthly friends.”
Such is a few of the trials and only a few that she with others passed through because they believed that God lived and had a Soul and Body like unto that of Man whom He had created and because they believed that He had the right and privilege to converse with the men He had created and that He did make known His mind and will and they believed it and would not deny it and troubles were multiplied upon them.
Joseph Smith himself was not excited about the idea of practicing polygamy and put off as long as possible sharing the doctrine that had been revealed to him about restoring the principle. Lorenzo Snow, who became the fifth president of the Church recorded the first time Joseph Smith revealed the doctrine to him, which gives some insight into how Joseph felt about it himself.
In the month of April, 1843, I returned from my European mission. A few days after my arrival at Nauvoo, when at President Joseph Smith’s house, he said he wished to have some private talk with me, and requested me to walk out with him. It was toward evening. We walked a little distance and sat down on a large log that lay near the bank of the river. He there and then explained to me the doctrine of plurality of wives; he said that the Lord had revealed it unto him, and commanded him to have women sealed to him as wives; that he foresaw the trouble that would follow, and sought to turn away from the commandment; that an angel from heaven then appeared before him with a drawn sword, threatening him with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment (Lorenzo Snow affidavit, 28 August 1868; cited by Joseph F[ielding] Smith, Jr., Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage: A Discussion (Independence, Missouri: Press of Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company, 1905), 67–68).
The comments above show that no one was really excited about living the law of plural marriage. However, as the Book of Mormon tells us, it is against God’s commandments to have concubines or more than one wife unless He specifically commands it.
Therefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts. Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes. For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things (Jacob 2:27–30).
The law of monogamy was an integral part of society in the United States. All members of the Church had been taught monogamy from the time they were children. It was not an easy thing for them to live the law of plural marriage. However, each person who was called to live the law was given a personal witness that it truly was a commandment from God.
After sacrificing a great deal to live the law of plural marriage, the Saints eventually abandoned the practice. Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church, issued a declaration which came to be known as the Manifesto in 1890 announcing plural marriage would no longer be practiced. Why would the Saints give in to pressure at this point, after having already endured so much persecution for their beliefs?
Contrary to some critics’ views, it was not pressure from the government that made Wilford Woodruff decide to end the practice. For years he had prayed about God’s will concerning the matter. In the late 1800s, things had finally reached such a point that the government was about to dissolve the Church and take over everything, including the Saints’ three temples—their most sacred edifices. This time, in response to a great deal of prayer, pondering, and fasting, Wilford Woodruff received revelation from God that it was no longer expedient for the Church to continue living the law of plural marriage. God withdrew His commandment and sanction to live the law. Those who had already entered plural marriage still had the responsibility to provide for their families, but no new plural marriages were to be performed.
After the Manifesto, monogamy was advocated in the Church both over the pulpit and through the press. On an exceptional basis, some new plural marriages were performed between 1890 and 1904, especially in Mexico and Canada, outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law; a small number of plural marriages were performed within the United States during those years. In 1904, the Church strictly prohibited new plural marriages. Today, and person who practices plural marriage cannot become or remain a member of the Church (Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah).
Why Were the Saints Commanded to Practice Plural Marriage?
Since God is the one who commanded the Saints to live this law, only He is qualified to answer this question, and no revelation has been given concerning this question. The only answer we can give as to why the Saints lived the law is because they were commanded to. As to why the commandment was given, no one today has that answer.
In hindsight, however, there are many clear blessings that came from the Saints living this law. It can be instructive to look at some of the benefits they received for their obedience, though we are not stating that any of these blessings was a specific reason for the commandment of plural marriage being given in the first place.
Obedience, Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) believe, is an eternal principle. Strict obedience to God’s commandments will always bring blessings, even if the only immediately obvious one is to strengthen one’s relationship with God by proving that one’s loyalty lies with Him. For the Saints, obedience to the law of plural marriage irrevocably separated them from the rest of the nation. While this certainly had major drawbacks, a benefit was to strengthen a feeling of unity in the Church and to draw a clear line between God and the world. This helped the Church to grow stronger and to develop faith in its members.
Another result of the Saints practicing plural marriage was sacrifice. By living a life that was more than repugnant to the rest of their society, they were asked to sacrifice their reputations as moral, upstanding Christians; they were stripped of their civil rights; many times they were forced out of their homes and lost all their material possessions. Many people lost loved ones on the trek west. Then they were told God no longer required them to live the law which they had given so much to try and live. None of this was easy.
Helen Mar Whitney provides some valuable insight into the feelings of those called to live this law:
Those who have not the knowledge and assurance that the course which they are pursuing is according to the will of God, cannot endure all these afflictions and persecutions, taking joyfully the spoiling of their goods and even if necessary to suffer death, by the hands of their foes. They will grow weary and faint and fall by the way unless they have unshaken confidence and a perfect knowledge for themselves. They cannot make a sacrifice of their character and reputation; and give up their houses, their lands, brothers, sisters, wives and children; counting all things as dross, when compared with the eternal life and exaltation, which our Savior has promised to the obedient; and this knowledge is not obtained without a struggle nor the glory without a sacrifice of all earthly things. In the last days (we read) the Lord is to gather together his Saints who have made covenant with Him by sacrifice and each one must know that their sacrifice is accepted as did righteous, Abel and Abraham the father of the faithful. Every Latter-day Saint knows this to be true, and that according to our faith so are our blessings and privileges. [Helen Mar Whitney, A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1999), 187.]
The only reason which God has ever clearly stated for why He may command the practice of plural marriage is to “raise up seed” unto Himself as quoted above from the Book of Mormon. In Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants (a collection of revelations given to Joseph Smith from God on specific points of doctrine), the Lord says:
Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins—from whose loins ye are, namely, my servant Joseph—which were to continue so long as they were in the world; and as touching Abraham and his seed, out of the world they should continue; both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them.
This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself. Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved. But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham. God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.
Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it (Doctrine and Covenants 132:30–34).
This discussion of Abraham having lived the law of plural marriage (and there are other Old Testament prophets who also lived this law with God’s approval) shows that periodically, God has commanded His people to live it. Having it be culturally uncomfortable or unacceptable is of no concern to God, because His law is eternal. When He commands it, it should be lived; otherwise, it is expressly forbidden.
Whether or not it was God’s single purpose to raise up seed unto Himself when He commanded the Saints to practice plural marriage, that was certainly a result. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a young, fledgling church when the doctrine of plural marriage was first revealed to Joseph Smith. All its leaders and members were converts to the gospel. There were more women than men who were faithful members of the Church. By having one faithful man marry multiple faithful women, a much larger faithful generation was raised in a shorter period of time than would have otherwise been possible.
At a time when women were not given many opportunities in society in general, and when a lack of technology restricted them to home life because running a household was so time-demanding, plural marriage gave many women the opportunity to pursue other interests and to contribute in their communities in ways they would have otherwise been unable to. Responsibilities of housework and childcare could be shared among women, lifting many burdens. Women were even given the right to vote in Utah long before a constitutional amendment was passed. In fact, when Utah sought statehood, its government had to rescind the right the right it had already given women to vote.
Contrary to what many think today, no one was forced to live the law of plural marriage. In fact, it was a relatively small percentage of Church members who did live the law, up to 30 percent at its highest in 1870, and it decreased after that. No woman was forced to enter a marriage she did not wish to. In addition, women who found themselves unhappy with the situation after entering a plural marriage were allowed to divorce and either remarry or stay single, as they chose. For men, however, divorces from plural wives were not so easy to obtain. It was difficult for a woman to support herself. Therefore, if men found themselves in difficult situations, they were counseled to make it work.
Again, since the Lord has not revealed His purpose for having commanded the Saints to practice plural marriage, no one today can point to a reason and say, “This is why it was a commandment.” However, it can be very enlightening to look at all the benefits that came to the Saints for their obedience to this law.
An official statement from The Church of Jesus Christ offers the following summary of the positive effects of polygamy for the early Saints:
Plural marriage did result in the birth of large numbers of children within faithful Latter-day Saint homes. It also shaped 19th-century Mormon society in other ways: marriage became available to virtually all who desired it; per-capita inequality of wealth was diminished as economically disadvantaged women married into more financially stable households; and ethnic intermarriages were increased, which helped to unite a diverse immigrant population. Plural marriage also helped create and strengthen a sense of cohesion and group identification among Latter-day Saints. Church members came to see themselves as a “peculiar people,” covenant-bound to carry out the commands of God despite outside opposition, willing to endure ostracism for their principles.
For a much more in-depth view on polygamy, read Gregory Smith’s comprehensive article “Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Script: Why did Mormons practice polygamy?
Before answering that, let’s deal with the other question that often comes up first.
Do some Mormons still live with multiple wives?
The practice of polygamy, also known as plural marriage, is not practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often called Mormons, today.
Obeying the Lord’s command, Mormons followed this practice
for about 50 years during the nineteenth century, but it is often a misunderstood part of Church history.
These early Latter-day saints obeyed revelation to the Lord’s prophet Joseph Smith as it was given, out of their great love for the Lord, and their faith in His eternal plan.
Even at the time, it was a very difficult commandment from God and was a great test of faith for many involved.
Polygamy dates back to the Bible.
At times and to fulfill His specific purposes, God, through His prophets, sanctioned the practice of plural marriage.
Several scriptural figures like Abraham, Jacob, David, Moses and others had more than one wife.
The Lord restored many things through revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith, including eventually, polygamy, but it was not instituted for the purpose of sexual license as some critics have accused.
It was practiced only by the command of the Lord to bring forth a new generation, as a trial of faith for the saints at that time, and to allow all worthy women the chance to be sealed into eternal families.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, times became extremely difficult politically for the members of the Church. It was then revealed to the prophet Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church, that the Church should stop the practice of polygamy in order to avoid more difficulties.
The practice officially ceased around 1890, and has not been practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over a century.
At the time, however, some members of the Church did not follow the prophet’s call to end the practice, and started their own churches, often with similar names, which still practiced polygamy.
Some of these sects still exist today and may even call themselves Mormons, but these groups have no relationship to
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Church today, in accordance with the law of the land, prohibits living in polygamy, and focuses on strengthening families and marriages between one man and one woman.
The Church has always taught the supreme importance of the family in God’s eternal plan, and that families can be sealed and live together forever – the highest blessing possible through
the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Doris White is a native of Oregon and graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and a minor in Editing. She loves to talk with others about the gospel of Jesus Christ.