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The modern church has plenty of embarrassing historical specters hanging around, but few haunt it the way polygamy does. The church has tried to distance itself from the practice in the past century, but with mixed results. If you ask most Mormons today whether or not they believe it's proper to practice polygamy, they'll tell you no. But if you ask them whether or not it's a correct principle, they'll say yes.
In fact, the practice of polygamy is an excommunicable offense, and has been for many decades. This has not always been the case, howeverpolygamy was once, deservedly (and still is, erroneously), the chief distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism in the minds of most Americansand many Saints believe it may not always be the case in the future. They look forward to the day when the moral and political climate in the United States and other nations has cooled enough to permit the church to reinstitute the practicethough the more reasonable of these don't expect it to happen until Christ's Millennial reign on Earth. (Note that I specified "the more reasonable.")
So, what is polygamy, and how did the practice arise?
The word comes from Greek roots, and means, quite literally, "multiple mates." The more proper term for what Mormons practiced would be "polygyny," or "multiple wives," though a bit of polyandry ("multiple husbands") did creep in there at the beginningmuch to the distress of the Saints to whom this fact is pointed out. (And lest we banish semantic confusion entire, I'll point out that Mormons prefer the term "plural marriage," though they're fighting a losing battle on that one, just as they are with the label "Mormon" itself.)
The first Mormon polygamist was, as you may guess, Joseph Smith himself. Critics sometimes charge he concocted the whole plural-marriage scheme to cover up and sanctify marital infidelities, but if so he did some very careful advance planning. The first hint of his unconventional philosophies to come can be found in the Book of Mormon, in a sermon delivered by the prophet Jacob to the people of Nephi, which Joseph wrote (or translated, if you prefer) in 1829:
. . . [T]hey understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son.
Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. . . .
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 . . .
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 2:23, 24, 27, 30).
This passage seems to suggest, if you squint at it sideways and cock your head, that God can, when necessary, suspend the laws of monogamypresumably so that every woman of child-bearing age can get a legitimate bun in the oven and help His earthly kingdom explode in population like a warren of rabbits. In any event, when you recall that Biblical figures other than David and Solomon practiced polygyny with God's blessing, you see that, even this early in his prophetic career, Joseph was already trying to reconcile problematic aspects of the Old Testament with the conventional Christian morality of his day.
Evidence suggests that Joseph's first explicit "revelation" on the subject of plural marriage came as early as 1831, but even so, it's important to realize that his marital innovations were hardly unique. Other religious communities in the Northeast, including the Perfectionists and the Swedenborgians, experimented with nonstandard sexual mores during roughly the same period. But Joseph's teachings were destined to overshadow and by far outlive the others, both in actual implementation and in the nation's thrilled and horrified popular imagination.
Joseph had married Emma Hale in 1827, and commencing in 1830 he may secretly have entreated girls as young as twelve to become his "spiritual wives." But it wasn't until 1833 that his first well-documented plural marriage took place, when he wed Fanny Alger, a sixteen-year-old girl working as a maid in the house where he lived with Emma and their children in Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph's clandestine proposal may have been relayed to Fanny by her uncle, Levi Hancock, who is also held to have performed the ceremony at the prophet's behest. Though Emma knew nothing of this second marriage, she suspected a relationship between Fanny and her husband and threw the girl out of the house not long after the wedding. (Fanny may possibly have been pregnant with Joseph's child at the time.)
Joseph's next generally accepted marriage took place in 1838, to Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris, widow of the martyr William Morgan (the very man killed in 1826 for having written his famous exposé of Masonry). Lucinda was Joseph's first verifiable polyandrous wife; she was already married to minor Mormon leader George Washington Harris, when she wed Joseph.
This pattern would repeat itself many times over the next several years, as nearly a dozen of the at least thirty-three women he web polygynously were already married. Some had converted to Mormonism and moved west without divorcing their husbands, but others, like Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde, were wives of other prominent church leaders. (Marinda, in fact, married Joseph while her husband, apostle Orson Hyde, was serving a mission for the church in Palestine.) Joseph also married the young (and dare I suggest nubile?) daughters of many of his closest associates, and you are entirely justified in wondering what led these men to put up with their prophet's shenanigans.
Well, around this same period, Joseph was also developing his doctrine of celestial marriage, which states that men and women who are "sealed" together by priesthood authority on Earth will remain married eternally in Heaven. His lieutenants may have permitted (or rather, not opposed) Joseph's celestial marriages to their wives and daughters in order to ensure the proximity of their own links to his in the great dynastic chain he was forging for the life to come. These were magnanimous gestures on the parts of his followers, though heartbreaking when you realize that because women were (and still are) allowed to marry only one husband eternally, these men were in effect sacrificing their own celestial marriages with their first and presumably most beloved wives for the sake of the prophet.
(Joseph for his part may also have been testing the loyalty and obedience of his closest counselors. Tradition holds that an agonized Parley Pratt, then an apostle, consented to let the prophet wed his cherished wife Mary Ann, only to have Joseph let him off the hook at the last second. Their faithfulness proven, Joseph told the relieved Pratts that they were blessed for their obedience but that the sacrifice would not be required of them after all. Psych!)
As Joseph's plural marriages proliferated, so did the rumors flying around Nauvoo (the city in Illinois to which the Saints had meanwhile relocated) of his sexual malfeasance. Only those who had to know were taught the principle of plural marriage, and Joseph publicly denied the rumors of its practice time and again. Not even Emma knew the truth of the matter, though she certainly suspected Joseph of continual infidelity. The situation at home came to a head when Eliza R. Snow, Joseph's fourteenth or so plural wife, came to live and work as a teacher in the Smith's home. In February 1843 Emma's jealousy of Eliza reached such a pitch that she angrily tossed the other woman out of the house and into the night. (One account claims that Emma actually kicked Eliza down the stairs, causing the younger wife to miscarry Joseph's child.)
So many of Joseph's lieutenants were now living in polygamy as well that it was harder and harder to keep the practice hidden. Joseph was finally forced, lest she murder his suspected mistresses, to let Emma in on the secret. She didn't take the news well, but did assume responsibility for selecting Joseph's next wives. Evidently Joseph hadn't told her the whole truth, however, because the first girls Emma chose to wed him, sisters barely out of their teens named Emily and Eliza Partridge, were already his plural wives. Joseph staged a second marriage ceremony with the sisters so Emma wouldn't feel more angry and humiliated than she did already, after which the girls moved into the house. Another sister pair selected by Emma, the teenaged Sarah and Maria Lawrence, soon joined them.
Emma never embraced the practice of polygamy, however, and found the necessity of living under the same roof with other wives nearly intolerable. (Joseph's polyandrous wives for the most part lived with their original husbands, and many others boarded with families privy to the secret.) She begged Joseph so fervently to disavow the principle (either that or permit her to take "spiritual husbands" to assuage her horrid loneliness) that when he finally issued a revelation from God legitimizing plural marriage, it contained a side note to Emma, telling her, in so many words, that if she didn't shut up and get with the program she'd be "destroyed" (D&C 132:54).
Emma really didn't take that well. Later, after Joseph's death, she repudiated polygamy entirely, going so far as to deny that Joseph had ever had any wife but her. She stayed behind when Brigham Young led the great exodus to the Salt Lake Valley, and her son Joseph Smith III became the president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a sect headquartered in Missouri that claims prophetic succession passes only from father to son.
The practice of plural marriage flourished in Utah. Apostles Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball between them married (for time only, not eternity) the bulk of Joseph's wives who didn't already have other husbands, and of course they and other leaders had already amassed plenty of wives of their own. Lesser leaders and other prominent men acquired plural wives as well, though rarely more than two or three apiece. Unlike Joseph, these men actually supported all their wives and their families, and in 1852 Brigham Young, by now accepted as the new prophet, at last publicly acknowledged the Mormon practice of polygamy, canonizing Joseph's 1843 revelation on the subject.
Though plural marriage in this era was practiced within a strict moral framework, with little bawdiness and often less joy, the rest of the country was outraged by the deviant proceedings in the new territory of Utah. Starting in 1862, the U.S. Congress enacted an escalating series of laws intended to root out the evil of polygamy and restore decency to the nation. Utahns laughed at the earliest of these laws, for local enforcement lay in the hands of Mormon-dominated courts, but later legislation sent Federal agents to the territory to ensure that scofflaw polygamists went to jail.
In 1887, with many of the church's highest leaders already in hiding to avoid prison sentences, Congress passed the toughest law of all, the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which legislated the LDS church out of existence and placed its assets into receivership. (Say what you will about polygamy, this response to it was one of the more shameful acts in Congress's shameful history.) John Taylor, third church president, died in hiding that year, having already overseen the transfer of most church property into private hands to prevent its seizure by the government. His successor Wilford Woodruff announced the official end of polygamy in 1890, in a declaration that set the stage for Utah's admission to the Union in 1896 and the eventual restoration of the church's sanctioned legal status.
The Manifesto (as it was known), for all its rhetoric, did not disavow plural marriage as a correct eternal principle, but merely forbade the Saints from practicing it. He and his two successors continued to sanction certain secret plural marriages until as late as 1907, however, despite continuing skirmishes between Congress and the church and a "Second Manifesto" from sixth president Joseph F. Smith in 1904 reaffirming the cessation of polygamy.
Most Mormons abided by the new declarations, but a zealous minority continued practicing plural marriage underground, believing either that the Manifestos were just for show or that the leaders of the church had gone astray and betrayed bedrock principles faithful members were required to follow to achieve salvation. Polygamous communities thrive to this day, largely in remote areas of Utah and Arizona, though quietly practicing families can be found in most every large city in Utah. (A polygamous family lived up the street from us in Bountiful, in a dilapidated house on a large corner lot so cluttered with rusting cars and overgrown with shaggy trees that it looked like it had been transported whole from some poor backwoods hamlet circa 1930. I never saw any of the parents, but I understand there were something like three wives and eleven children in the house. The boy my age was named Zedshort for Zedekiahand he came to school in homespun clothes that looked like they'd passed through the hands of several older brothers. He was a sweet kid and I liked him, but rarely was he allowed to play with the rest of us on the block after school.)
How does the law view polygamy today? It's still illegal of course, though traditionally state governments have left polygamous families alone. As more and more instances of child and spousal abuse and even incest among these families come to light, however, prosecution is growing more common. Certainly not all polygamists are otherwise lawbreakers, but the ones who are bring plenty of unwanted attention to the ones who aren't, and give a bad name to them all.
The modern church takes a unilaterally hardline stance against polygamy. Any orthodox Mormon found to be practicing polygamy get excommunicatedno if's, and's, or but's. The church has worked so hard over the past century to buff itself up for the media and drag itself into the respectable mainstream that it can't abide any association that harks back to the days of cultish infamy. And that's fine with most polygamists; the ones who still call themselves Mormon belong to splinter sects and no longer acknowledge the authority of the leaders in Salt Lake City. There's no love lost here.
Plural marriage in the afterlife still stands as an enticement to mainstream Mormon men, however. If your first eternal wife should die before you, you have perfect freedom to get sealed to a second (provided, of course, that's she's never been sealed to a different husband), and in that event you don't even have to get the first wife's permission! Not only that, but Mormon tradition holds that there will naturally be more women than men in the Celestial Kingdom, and every man who makes it will have more than his share assigned to him as wives. (And they'll have perfect bodies, too, even if they didn't in this life!)
Bottom line: If you're a Mormon man, you have strong incentives to behave in this life and a lot to look forward to in the nexteven disregarding the ever-present hope that polygamy might be reinstated as an earthly institution within your lifetime. Woo-hoo!
If you're a Mormon womanwell, the story for you is a little different. Rather than launch into an elaborate treatise on the subject, I'll simply reproduce something my friend Benny wrote me in E-mail as we were corresponding on the subject of this very book:
Regarding plural marriage, I'd almost suggest that you mention something about the average modern Mormon woman's attitude toward it. Simply put, if the church tried to reinstitute it now, the Relief Society wouldn't have it. One of my wife's few sore spots concerning LDS doctrine is the notion that she will have to share her husband with myriad other wives. I tried rubbing her nose in it one time, and it nearly provoked a request for a divorce. The contradiction speaks volumes, doesn't it?
That it does. And if you're a Mormon woman, about the best thing I can say about what you have to look forward to in the next life is that at least you'll have plenty of sister wives to share your misery.
Plural marriageit's a grand institution, just grand.