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Polygamy

For many people, when you say the word “Mormon,” polygamy is the first word that comes to mind.  Ironically, however, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not practiced polygamy (also called “plural marriage”) for more than a hundred years, only taught the practice for about 55 years and openly permitted it for less than 40, and even then it was practiced by a minority of members.  Nonetheless, polygamy was linked to Mormonism in the public mind in the 19th century, and the association endures today, but from the modern LDS perspective, the practice is actually more of a historical curiosity.

Here are some questions and answers on this topic:

Q. Do members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practice polygamy?

A. No.  Members of the LDS Church are immediately excommunicated if they marry more than one person at the same time.

Q. But isn’t there some faction within the Mormon Church that practices polygamy?

A. No. If by “Mormon” you are referring to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is no member who engages in polygamy with the knowledge of Church leaders.

Q. So who are all those people in Utah, Arizona, and Texas who practice polygamy?

A. There are some other religious sects, not affiliated with what people commonly call the “Mormon Church,” such as the Apostolic United Brethren (including the cast of the reality TV show “Sister Wives”), the Fundamentalist LDS Church or FLDS (the Colorado City, Arizona-based sect associated with Warren Jeffs), the “First Warders”, the “Work of Jesus Christ, also known as the Centennial Park group or “Second Ward,” the Davis County Cooperative Society, otherwise known as The Kingstons, and the True and Living Church (TLC), that practice polygamy in the western United States.  These are mostly groups started by people who were excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 20th centuries.  Most current members of these churches are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these original members–they have never been Mormons.

Think Lutherans and Catholics. No one would accuse them of being the same church, even though the Lutherans broke off from the Catholics. In the case of these polygamous groups, their great-grandparents were excommunicated from the LDS Church, in much the same way as Martin Luther and his followers (the Lutherans) were excommunicated from the Catholic church.

Q. But aren’t they still “Mormons” because they believe in the Book of Mormon?

A. No, they aren’t. You certainly wouldn’t ask if Lutherans are still Catholic because they believe in the Bible. It is most appropriate to call them by the name of their church. The term “Mormon” is used for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  So it is inappropriate to use that term with other groups, unless it is modified. Some modify the term ‘Mormon” with “Fundamentalist”, however, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints objects to that usage as that usage leads to confusion between the groups and isn’t very accurate.

For a discussion of press style guides on this issue, see here.

Q. But didn’t The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practice polygamy at one time?

A. Yes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a percentage of people practicing polygamy in the 1800s. From 1835 to 1852 this was done privately, then from 1852 to 1890 it was practiced publicly. In 1890 the practice of “plural marriage” was ordered to be stopped by LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff. It is estimated that approximately 300 plural marriages were solemnized between 1890 and 1904, at which time the Church issued a stronger statement on the issue and started excommunicating those who refused to comply.

Q. So, aren’t present-day polygamists just living the way Mormons used to live? Aren’t they like “old style” Mormons?

A. No. These modern non-LDS groups do things very differently than the way they were historically done by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For instance, when polygamy was practiced in early Utah, women had complete choice in the situation and the right to no-fault divorce. Church President Brigham Young knew that living in these arrangements could be difficult, so women could leave the relationships for any reason. [1] As no-fault divorce was not generally available in the rest of the United States, this led to “divorce tourism” in Utah, with people coming from all over the country, including from Washington DC, to obtain easy divorces.

There are other differences as well. In some of these modern non-LDS groups, a conflict with church leadership can lead to wives, children, and property being “transferred” to other men, which was never practiced in nineteenth century Mormon polygamy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a strong belief in agency, or freedom of choice. In early Mormonism,  the ultimate decisions were made by the individuals involved. Some modern splinter groups which continue the practice of plural marriage also object to the practices of transferring wives and families and forced marriages.

Also, in early Mormonism there were no boys thrown out of the church (called “lost boys” today)  merely for the sake of creating a male-female imbalance, as there is in some of these modern groups. Immigration of converts to Utah resulted in more active LDS women who sought marriage than there were active LDS men.  (See here for a discussion.)

It must be remembered that in early Mormonism, the majority of members were monogamous. One study by scholar Kathryn Danes found that in one southern Utah community, the majority of polygamous wives were widows, divorcees, and daughters raised in polygamous families.

Q. What percentage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy?

A. There are a number of statistics on this question. As with all statistics, it depends on how you count members involved in polygamous relationships. Do you count the number of men? Do you count the number of men and women? Or do you count the number of men, women, and children?  Are the number of those practicing to be compared to all Mormons, all adult Mormons, all married Mormons, or just all men?  Differences in calculation have, then, led to widely varying figures.

A “low-end” value of 2% was commonly cited in the late nineteenth century.  This was the percentage of Mormon men who were polygamous (and thus at risk for prosecution by federal government’s anti-polygamy laws) compared to all Mormons.  This figure was commonly used to demonstrate the injustice of denying the right to vote or serve on juries to all Mormons during this period, regardless of whether they personally practiced polygamy. [2] A value of 2%, however, underestimates the impact of plural marriage on LDS culture.

Probably 15 to 20 percent of Latter-day Saint families were polygamous, “with variations from place to place and from decade to decade.”[3]  While this means that plural marriage was not universal, it nevertheless had a profound impact on the LDS experience on the Utah frontier: among active Mormons, “over a third of all husbands’ time, nearly three-quarters of all women-years, and well over half of all child-years were spent in polygamy before 1880.”[4]

Much of the Church leadership also practiced polygamy, although that wasn’t a universal rule.

To learn more

Quotes

Polygamy, plural marriage, is not part of the doctrine of this Church. Period! I don’t know how to state it more strongly than that.

-Excerpt from Elder Lance B. Wickman [of the Second Quorum of the Seventy] Interview ; interviewed by Larry Warren, KUTV, Channel 2, Salt Lake City, UT, Sept.4, 1998.

Our Church members have too often allowed others to set the conversational agenda. An example is polygamy. This ended in the Church as an official practice in 1890. It is now 2009. Why are we still talking about it? It was a practice. It ended. We moved on. If people ask you about polygamy, just acknowledge it was once a practice but not now, and that people shouldn’t confuse any [present day] polygamists with our Church.

– Elder M. Russell Ballard: Engaging Without Being Defensive 13 AUGUST 2009 — SALT LAKE CITY

There is no such thing as a “fundamentalist” Mormon. Mormon is a common name for a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church discontinued polygamy more than a century ago. No members of the Church today can enter into polygamy without being excommunicated. Polygamist groups in Utah, other parts of the American West and elsewhere have nothing whatsoever to do with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

– LDS.org Newsroom —Fundamentalist Mormon 06 FEBRUARY 2002 — SALT LAKE CITY

There is no such thing as a “polygamous” Mormon. Mormon is a common name for a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church discontinued polygamy more than a century ago. No members of the Church today can enter into polygamy without being excommunicated. Polygamist groups in Utah, Arizona or Texas have nothing whatsoever to do with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When referring to people or organizations that practice polygamy, terms such as those listed above are incorrect. The Associated Press Stylebook notes: “The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other … churches that resulted from the split after [Joseph] Smith’s death.”

– LDS.org Newsroom —Polygamous Mormons 01 MARCH 2005 — SALT LAKE CITY

The Associated Press style guide tells its reporters that the term Mormon “is not properly applied” to the other churches that resulted from the split after Joseph Smith’s death. It should be obvious why the AP has adopted that policy. It is widely understood that the word “Mormon” refers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sends out “Mormon missionaries,” sponsors the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” and builds “Mormon temples.” Associating the term “Mormon” with polygamists blurs what should be a crystal-clear line of distinction between organizations that are entirely separate.

For the record, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued its practice of polygamy in 1890, and for 117 years Mormons have followed a monogamous lifestyle.  Yet careless headline writing or sloppy reporting still causes millions of Mormons to have to answer questions from their neighbors, coworkers, friends and neighbors: “Are you a polygamist?” “Is that your church I read about in the newspaper?” or “How many wives do you have?”

We ask journalists to clearly make the distinction between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and polygamous groups. We also hope Church members and other readers will politely remind news organizations that continue to report inaccurately to make the effort to avoid these mistakes.

– LDS.org Newsroom —‘Mormons’ and Polygamy  07 SEPTEMBER 2007 — SALT LAKE CITY

Endnotes

[1] See Eugene E. Campbell and Bruce L. Campbell, “Divorce among Mormon Polygamists: Extent and Explanations,” Utah Historical Quarterly 46/1 (Winter 1978): 5; citing Box containing nine folders, numbered 1 to 917, plus several ledgers, Archives Division, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

[2] See, for example, John Taylor et al., “Epistle of The First Presidency,” to members and officers of the Church (4 April 1885), reproduced in Messages of First Presidency, Vol. 3, edited by James R. Clark (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1966), 11: “As the male members of our Church who practice plural marriage are estimated as not exceeding but little, if any, two per cent, of the entire membership of the Church, we consider it an act of great injustice to the ninety-eight per cent to be abused and outraged, and have all their business relations disturbed, values of every kind, unsettled, neighborhoods agitated and alarmed, and the property of the people generally jeopardized, because of this “raid” upon these alleged breaks of the law.”

Further examples can be seen in Messages of the First Presidency, Vol. 3, 31 and United States Senate, Committee on Privileges and Elections. In the Matter of the Protests Against the Right of Hon. Reed Smoot, A Senator from the State of Utah to Hold His Seat, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1904-1906), 1:38-39.  Discussion available in Stanley S. Ivins, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy,” Utah Historical Quarterly 35/4 (Fall 1967): 310–311.

[3] Davis Bitton, Historical Dictionary of Mormonism, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000), 147; see also Stanley S. Ivins, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy,” Utah Historical Quarterly 35/4 (Fall 1967): 311.

[4] Larry Logue, “A Time of Marriage: Monogamy and Polygamy in a Utah Town,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 25; cited by B. Carmon Hardy, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2007), 143–44.

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