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Gospel Topics Essay: Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah

Gospel Topics Essay: Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah

By Eric Johnson

To see an introduction to the Gospel Topics essays, click here.

The entire essay is printed below, underlined, with my commentary included throughout. Because I will try to be short and to the point as much as possible,  a number of sites (many from MRM) to support my disagreement are included. I encourage interested readers to consider these sources.  It should be noted that this particular essay (along with the other two essays on polygamous marriage) are no longer included on the index of the Gospel Topics Essays found on the church website.

To hear a 4-part Viewpoint on Mormonism series that aired January 28-31, 2014, click these: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4


The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that the marriage of one man to one woman is God’s standard, except at specific periods when He has declared otherwise.

The footnote  to this sentence reads,

Jacob 2:27, 30. For instances of plural marriage in the Bible, see Genesis 16:3; 25:1; 29:21-30; 30:3-4, 9. See also D&C 132:34-35.

First of all, it should be pointed out the Jacob passage only allows for polygamy to “raise up seed,” which means having children. Read the entire passage and it is plain to see that the context portrays a God who feels plural marriage is “abominable.” Here is the text in context:

 24 Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.

 25 Wherefore, thus saith the Lord, I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph.

 26 Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old.

 27 Wherefore, 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;

 28 For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.

 29 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.

 30 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.

As far as the references provided in the Bible, polygamy—just like divorce–was allowed by God, but it was never commanded. Some might think that Abraham chose polygamy or that he was somehow commanded to do so by God, but this is not true. Sarah is the one who suggested it. God allowed for it, but He certainly did not commission the practice. And that decision ended up having great consequences for Abraham and the future children of Israel, as the Ishmaelites became an enemy to God’s people. In fact, every instance of plural marriage turned out badly, from Abraham and Jacob to David and Solomon. To believe that D&C 132 is scripture, a person must accept Joseph Smith as a prophet of God. Christians don’t believe the Doctrine and Covenants is authoritative, and thus this part of LDS scripture is rejected by the vast majority of those calling themselves “Christian.”

In accordance with a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage—the marriage of one man to two or more women—was instituted among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s. Thereafter, for more than half a century, plural marriage was practiced by some Latter-day Saints. Only the Church President held the keys authorizing the performance of new plural marriages. In 1890, the Lord inspired Church President Wilford Woodruff to issue a statement that led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church. In this statement, known as the Manifesto, President Woodruff declared his intention to abide by U.S. law forbidding plural marriage and to use his influence to convince members of the Church to do likewise.

Notice how the one sentence reads, “the Lord inspired Church President Wilford Woodruff to issue a statement that led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.” The words “led to the end” is an admission that polygamy didn’t end in 1890. For more information on this topic and a response to polygamy ending in 1890, please visit my review on the Gospel Topics essay titled “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage.”

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, any person who practices plural marriage cannot become or remain a member of the Church.

The fact is that polygamy was not legal in either Mexico or Canada during that time. For more on that, click the link given above.

This essay primarily addresses plural marriage as practiced by the Latter-day Saints between 1847 and 1890, following their exodus to the U.S. West and before the Manifesto.

Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes for instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage during the 19th century. The Book of Mormon identifies one reason for God to command it: to increase the number of children born in the gospel covenant in order to “raise up seed unto [the Lord]” (Jacob 2:30). 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.

Regardless of possible benefits that polygamy may have brought to the Latter-day Saint people, the question shouldn’t be centered around pragmatism. Rather, the morally correct choice ought to be considered. In other words, is polygamy something that God intended for people? It doesn’t matter that it was practiced in the Bible; it matters what God intended.

When we consider Genesis 1, we see how “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In the next chapter, it reads (verse 24), “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This idea was discussed by Jesus in Mark 10:

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,and the two will become one flesh.’So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

The symbolism is clear. A man and woman come together to form one flesh. God’s intention was never for polygamy.

For these early Latter-day Saints, plural marriage was a religious principle that required personal sacrifice. Accounts left by men and women who practiced plural marriage attest to the challenges and difficulties they experienced, such as financial difficulty, interpersonal strife, and some wives’ longing for the sustained companionship of their husbands

There is no doubt that many sacrifices had to be made by everyone involved: the husband, the wives, and the children. The question we must ask, once again, is did God intend polygamy? Is this a moral right all men have? Or is it something that is not what God originally intended?

 But accounts also record the love and joy many found within their families. They believed it was a commandment of God at that time and that obedience would bring great blessings to them and their posterity, both on earth and in the life to come. While there was much love, tenderness, and affection within many plural marriages, the practice was generally based more on religious belief than on romantic love. Church leaders taught that participants in plural marriages should seek to develop a generous spirit of unselfishness and the pure love of Christ for everyone involved.

When it comes to Joseph Smith, sexual relationships were typical in his 30+ marriages. If Smith’s followers were following his example, then shouldn’t they expect the same. Mormon historian Todd Compton writes,

. . . Utah Mormons (including Smith’s wives) affirmed repeatedly that he had physical sexual relations with them—despite the Victorian conventions in nineteenth-century American culture which ordinarily would have prevented any mention of sexuality. . . . there is a great deal of evidence that Joseph Smith had sexual relations with his wives. . . . Some, like Emma Smith, conclude that Joseph’s marriages were for eternity only, not for time (thus without earthly sexuality). But many of Joseph’s wives affirmed that they were marred to him for eternity and time, with sexuality included. . . . In conclusion, though it is possible that Joseph had some marriages in which there were no sexual relations, there is no explicit or convincing evidence for this (except, perhaps, in the cases of the older wives, judging from later Mormon polygamy). And in a significant number of marriages, there is evidence for sexual relations” (In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 12-15).

Mormon researchers Linda Newell King and Valeen Tippetts Avery make an astute observation when the wrote,

Many concluded that the practice of polygamy stemmed from his own insatiable sex drive, fueled by a quest for power. In an effort to defuse that charge somewhat, others have intimated that Emma was frigid and unresponsive, implying that if Joseph had a prob­lem it must have been Emma’s fault. …The majority of faithful Mormons would give little consideration to Joseph’s own physical drives or to other charges. With “an almost compulsive emphasis on unquestioning loyalty to the Priesthood authority as the cardi­nal virtue,” they would maintain simply that God commanded plu­ral marriage through the prophet Joseph Smith (Mormon Enigma: Emma Smith, 1994, p. 97. Ellipses mine).

So, while it might be claimed that the “practice was generally based more on religious belief than on romantic love,” this could very well be true for many of the wives. Yet how many men would have said the sexual satisfaction (conquering?) contributed to their desire to have multiple women as partners? Let’s be honest and say “all.”

During the years that plural marriage was publicly taught, all Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle as a revelation from God.

Brigham Young, Mormonism’s second president, said,

Why do we believe in and practice polygamy? Because the Lord introduced it to his servants in a revelation given to Joseph Smith, and the Lord’s servants have always practiced it. “And is that religion popular in heaven?” It is the only popular religion there, for this is the religion of Abraham, and, unless we do the works of Abraham, we are not Abraham’s seed and heirs according to prom­ise (July 6, 1862, Journal of Discourses 9:322).

Practicing plural marriage was necessary for a man who hoped to become a god:

Now, where a man in this Church says, “I don’t want but one wife, I will live my religion with one,” he will perhaps be saved in the celestial kingdom; but when he gets there he will not find himself in possession of any wife at all. He has had a talent that he has hid up. He will come forward and say, “Here is that which thou gavest me, I have not wasted it, and here is the one talent,” and he will not enjoy it, but it will be taken and given to those who have improved the talents they received, and he will find himself without any wife, and he will remain single for ever and ever. But if the woman is determined not to enter into a plural marriage, that woman when she comes forth will have the privilege of living in single blessedness through all eternity…Now, sisters, do not say, “I do not want a husband when I get up in the resurrection.” You do not know what you will want. I tell this so that you can get the idea. If in the resurrection you really want to be single and alone, and live so forever and ever, and be made servants, while others receive the highest order of intelligence and are bringing worlds into existence, you can have the privilege. They who will be ex­alted cannot perform all the labor, they must have servants and you can be servants to them (Brigham Young, August 31, 1873, Journal of Discourses 16:166,167. Ellipses mine).

Heber C. Kimball, a member of the First Presidency, explained,

You might as well deny “Mormonism,” and turn away from it, as to oppose the plurality of wives. Let the Presidency of this Church, and the Twelve Apostles, and all the authorities unite and say with one voice that they will oppose that doctrine, and the whole of them would be damned (October 12, 1856, Journal of Discourses 5:203).

Another First Presidency member, George Q. Cannon, stated,

If plural marriage be divine, as the Latter-day Saints say it is, no power on earth can suppress it, unless you crush and destroy this entire people (July 20, 1879, Journal of Discourses 20:276).

Plenty of quotes can be displayed to show how vital polygamy was to the nineteenth century Mormon, especially if a person hoped to become a god. While the minority of the membership participated in polygamy, the vast majority of the leadership did. And they believed this doctrine was necessary for eternal life  or what Mormons call exaltation in the celestial kingdom

Not all, however, were expected to live it. Indeed, this system of marriage could not have been universal due to the ratio of men to women. Church leaders viewed plural marriage as a command to the Church generally, while recognizing that individuals who did not enter the practice could still stand approved of God.

According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, most Mormons did not practice polygamy:

The exact percentage of Latter-day Saints who participated in the practice is not known, but studies suggest a maximum of from 20 to 25 of LDS adults were members of polygamous households. At its height, plural marriage probably involved only a third of the women reaching marriageable age-though among Church lead­ership plural marriage was the norm for a time (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 3:1095).

Brigham Young did teach,

The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy (August 19, 1866, Jour­nal of Discourses 11:269).

So while the essay did say that not all “were expected to live it,” the leaders knew the importance of such a teaching.

Women were free to choose their spouses, whether to enter into a polygamous or monogamous union, or whether to marry at all. Some men entered plural marriage because they were asked to do so by Church leaders, while others initiated the process themselves; all were required to obtain the approval of Church leaders before entering a plural marriage.

Who ended up becoming the main beneficiary? Those men who were able to get multiple wives. The losers were the women who, while they “were free to choose their spouses,” really had very little choice in the matter. Many women because the wife of a man already married because they wanted security for themselves.

The passage of time shaped the experience of life within plural marriage. Virtually all of those practicing it in the earliest years had to overcome their own prejudice against plural marriage and adjust to life in polygamous families. The task of pioneering a semiarid land during the middle decades of the 19th century added to the challenges of families who were learning to practice the principle of plural marriage. Where the family lived—whether in Salt Lake City, with its multiple social and cultural opportunities, or the rural hinterlands, where such opportunities were fewer in number—made a difference in how plural marriage was experienced. It is therefore difficult to accurately generalize about the experience of all plural marriages.

Still, some patterns are discernible, and they correct some myths. Although some leaders had large polygamous families, two-thirds of polygamist men had only two wives at a time. Church leaders recognized that plural marriages could be particularly difficult for women. Divorce was therefore available to women who were unhappy in their marriages; remarriage was also readily available.

Does this sound like a practice that made God extremely pleased? Yes, as the essay admits, life in a polygamous situation was hard. The idea that women could easily get out of the situation misses the mark according to the cultural context. If she left the situation, what was she supposed to do? How could/would she fend for herself? It is the same situation the women in Warren Jeffs’ (and other polygamous groups) face if they decide to leave. Where will they go? How will they eat? What will happen to the children? It’s the reason why many women won’t leave.

As far as saying that “two-thirds of polygamist men had only two wives at a time”….whether a man had thirty wives or just two, it was still polygamy and certainly illegal in the United States. Women had to share a husband. A man’s attention was divided. And this is not the way God intended “family” to be.

Women did marry at fairly young ages in the first decade of Utah settlement (age 16 or 17 or, infrequently, younger), which was typical of women living in frontier areas at the time. As in other places, women married at older ages as the society matured. Almost all women married, and so did a large percentage of men. In fact, it appears that a larger percentage of men in Utah married than elsewhere in the United States at the time. Probably half of those living in Utah Territory in 1857 experienced life in a polygamous family as a husband, wife, or child at some time during their lives By 1870, 25 to 30 percent of the population lived in polygamous households, and it appears that the percentage continued to decrease over the next 20 years.

Are these stats supposed to be a support for 19th century plural marriages? Let’s suppose it’s true, that the average marrying age at that time was 16. (I’m assuming it, not admitting to it.) And let’s suppose that a quarter of the population lived in polygamous households, as the essay states. These aren’t moral reasons to support the existence of polygamy.

The experience of plural marriage toward the end of the 19th century was substantially different from that of earlier decades. Beginning in 1862, the U.S. government passed laws against the practice of plural marriage. Outside opponents mounted a campaign against the practice, stating that they hoped to protect Mormon women and American civilization. For their part, many Latter-day Saint women publicly defended the practice of plural marriage, arguing in statements that they were willing participants.

Again, this is faulty logic. What if Fundamentalist women came forward in court testimony, saying the government should not prosecute their husbands because they were in support of the practice of polygamy? Would the Mormon Church leaders write a “Friend of the Court” brief to agree how polygamy should therefore not be prosecuted? And would the church admit that Warren Jeffs ought to be released, merely because he married 78 women, including some teenagers?

When I read this paragraph, I moaned in disbelief. It brought to my mind another scenario. Suppose girls who are 16 having consensual sex with 34-year-old men were required to testify. “We support the right to have sex with our boyfriends,” the girls might tell a judge. Does this make statutory rape legal? And should the 34-year-old man be found innocent? The answer to these questions, for a moral society, is “no”! In the same way, just because the women might “say” they support the practice of polygamy, this should not be allowed to be used in support of a practice that, once again, was illegal in the United States.

One more point: Even if the women did come out in support of polygamy, who is to say that the “wives” weren’t pressured by their husbands and/or church to “say” they support it?

After the U.S. Supreme Court found the anti-polygamy laws to be constitutional in 1879, federal officials began prosecuting polygamous husbands and wives during the 1880s. Believing these laws to be unjust, Latter-day Saints engaged in civil disobedience by continuing to practice plural marriage and by attempting to avoid arrest.

For my response on the issue of “civil disobedience,” once again consider The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage.

When convicted, they paid fines and submitted to jail time. To help their husbands avoid prosecution, plural wives often separated into different households or went into hiding under assumed names, particularly when pregnant or after giving birth.

By 1890, when President Woodruff’s Manifesto lifted the command to practice plural marriage, Mormon society had developed a strong, loyal core of members, mostly made up of emigrants from Europe and the Eastern United States. But the demographic makeup of the worldwide Church membership had begun to change. Beginning in the 1890s converts outside the United States were asked to build up the Church in their homelands rather than move to Utah. In subsequent decades, Latter-day Saints migrated away from the Great Basin to pursue new opportunities. Plural marriage had never been encouraged outside of concentrated populations of Latter-day Saints. Especially in these newly formed congregations outside of Utah, monogamous families became central to religious worship and learning. As the Church grew and spread beyond the American West, the monogamous nuclear family was well suited to an increasingly mobile and dispersed membership.

For many who practiced it, plural marriage was a significant sacrifice. Despite the hardships some experienced, the faithfulness of those who practiced plural marriage continues to benefit the Church in innumerable ways. Through the lineage of these 19th-century Saints have come many Latter-day Saints who have been faithful to their gospel covenants as righteous mothers and fathers, loyal disciples of Jesus Christ, and devoted Church members, leaders, and missionaries. Although members of the contemporary Church are forbidden to practice plural marriage, modern Latter-day Saints honor and respect these pioneers who gave so much for their faith, families, and community.

A pragmatic approach to an issue such as this misses the heart of the issue. Instead of suggesting that the early LDS church leaders were wrong in not only allowing polygamy but promoting it, the essay writer appears to want the reader to feel good because so many positives came out of polygamy. Honestly, a lot of good came out 9/11 despite the tragedy of so many lives lost (i.e. the nation bonded together, people became more patriotic, etc.). But this doesn’t mitigate the serious and morally reprehensible action those Islamic terrorists did to this nation in 2001.

In conclusion, this essay does discuss some of the historical background of polygamy, but much is missing that could easily mislead the reader.

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