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Understanding Polygamy in Mormon History

Outsiders sometimes ask Mormons — often in jest, occasionally in concern — whether they practice polygamy. (The Mormon response is usually to roll the eyes and recite for the thousandth time that the Latter-day Saints haven't practiced polygamy for over a century and that anyone who practices it today is excommunicated, yada yada yada.)

Who practiced polygamy, and why?

Modern folks aren't the only ones who feel uncomfortable about the idea of polygamy. When Joseph Smith first explained the doctrine of plural marriage to Brigham Young in the early 1840s, Brigham felt repulsed by it. Like Brigham, most of the early Latter-day Saints didn't instantly warm to the idea, but they gradually came to understand it as God's will.

Finding out who was involved

Although in recent years the Church has downplayed the importance of plural marriage to nineteenth century Saints in order to keep the current stance clear, history shows that polygamy was an extremely important aspect of Mormonism in the nineteenth century.

Rates of polygamous marriages varied at different points throughout the second half of the nineteenth century in Mormon settlements. The 1850s saw many plural marriages, but the rate seems to have declined afterward due to government persecution and changing social standards. The numbers also varied based on geography; some towns embraced polygamy more than others.

Hearing the defense

Why did the Latter-day Saints practice polygamy, especially when this deviation from what was considered "normal" or moral behavior so angered America's citizens and government? Here are some possible reasons, both theological and social:

  • God told us to do it. Period. Most Mormons believe that although they may not understand why, the Lord chose to institute plural marriage for a brief period in the nineteenth century as the Church was becoming established. The nineteenth century Latter-day Saints felt that they were practicing plural marriage in strict obedience to God's will and that the practice was divinely inspired. In fact, Mormonism still acknowledges polygamy as a divine principle that may apply in heaven, though it's no longer in practice on the earth.
  • It was part of the "restitution of all things." Mormons saw their practice of polygamy as similar to that of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They believe that their latter-day church includes, as predicted in the Bible, the "restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began" (Acts 3:21). That includes Old Testament polygamy.
  • It brought the Latter-day Saints together. Polygamy made the Mormons more cohesive as a people and gave them a distinct identity. Some plural wives were family members even before marriage (two sisters marrying the same man, for example), and the bonds of marriage expanded family networks. Also, the increased persecution caused by polygamy helped the Mormons bond together even more closely as a people.
  • It raised up a mighty generation. Many Mormons believe that one of the reasons the Lord may have sanctioned polygamy for a time was that it allowed the struggling Latter-day Saints to raise up a "righteous seed" of second- and third-generation Mormons to build the kingdom. Because of polygamy, Mormon families in the nineteenth century were able to obey the Lord's commandment to "be fruitful and multiply," sometimes having two or three times as many children as they may have had with only one child bearer. What's more, polygamy attached women and children to men who had made a strong commitment to the Church, because those men were the most likely to enter into plural marriage.

Busting a few myths about nineteenth century polygamy

Several enduring myths are still bandied about as people try to explain polygamy (or explain it away):

  • "Mormons practiced polygamy because women on the frontier far outnumbered men, and plural marriage gave every woman a chance to have a husband." In actuality, men sometimes outnumbered women, especially in the early years of Mormon settlement. Some towns had three times as many unmarried men as women. In this marriage market of swinging Mormon singles, women had the pick of the litter.
  • "Polygamy took care of older women and spinsters so they had a chance to get married." The truth is that most plural wives were younger than the first wife, so they weren't exactly spinsters rescued by polygamy. This idea was especially true in the 1850s, though as the decades passed, convincing young women to enter into plural marriage got tougher.
  • "Polygamous men lived in harems and had about 20 wives each." Although a few prominent Church leaders like Brigham Young did have wives numbering into the double digits, this situation was far from the norm. Most men who entered into polygamy took only one or two additional wives. If the family could afford it, each wife had her own home or apartment.
  • "Polygamy was all about sex." Not really. In fact, some of the plural marriages contracted in Utah were for eternity only, meaning that the wife would be on the man's rolls in heaven, but they would have no earthly rolls in the hay. In eternity-only marriages, conjugal relations weren't permitted, and the wife usually supported herself. In marriages for both time and eternity, the couple enjoyed conjugal relations, but the husband was bound to support his wives and any children they had.
  • "Only the poorest of the poor practiced polygamy." Statistics show that most of the men who practiced polygamy in Utah were among the wealthier members of Mormon society. Supporting multiple households required a certain amount of cold, hard cash, so Church leaders were more likely to approve the marriages of men who could support additional wives. (Plural wives, though, often came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and plural marriage to a well-established man helped them move up the social ladder.)

Government pressure to end polygamy

After the Mormons' announcement of plural marriage in 1852 kindled the nation's anger, the U.S. government engaged in a vigorous tug of war with the Mormons in Salt Lake City. For nearly 40 years, the government applied as much political and social pressure as possible to get the Mormons to abandon the hated practice. Congress created antipolygamy legislation that gradually tightened the noose around the Church. Here's a thumbnail sketch:

  • In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Antibigamy Act, which made practicing polygamy a felony. However, this law was full of loopholes (not the least of which was that bigamy means only two wives!) and didn't hold any weight in the Mormon-dominated Utah courts.
  • In 1874, the government resolved that judicial loophole with the Poland Act. This law stated that all polygamy cases would be tried in federal courts with federally appointed judges. This way, Mormon judges or juries couldn't just dismiss the cases.
  • In 1882, the Edmunds Act made unlawful cohabitation a crime, and anyone who broke the law could be imprisoned for six months. Unlawful cohabitation was a much easier judicial standard to prove than bigamy or polygamy, because prosecutors didn't have to provide evidence of a marriage.
  • In 1887, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act in a final attempt to drive the nail in the coffin of polygamy. This act accomplished three things:

• It disfranchised (took the vote away from) all the women of Utah and polygamous men.

• It froze all the Church's assets in excess of $50,000, basically bankrupting the Church and crippling its missionary efforts.

• It declared all children of plural marriages to be illegitimate in the eyes of the government.

When the Supreme Court declared that this law was constitutional, the Mormons knew that continuing plural marriage could result in the government closing down their temples and threatening the very survival of the Church. Faced with this terrible situation, President Wilford Woodruff issued a document (now known as the Woodruff Manifesto) in 1890 ending the practice of plural marriage. Although the manifesto is included in every Mormon's collection of scriptures as part of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C), they refer to it as an official declaration rather than a revelation, and God isn't mentioned in it at all.

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