Do Mormons Practice Polygamy?





3-26-12

Daniel Mallia is an HNN intern and an undergraduate at Fordham University.

A frequent charge raised against Mormonism is that Mormons practice polygamy, which many people oppose for various reasons ranging from religious or moral convictions to concerns about the treatment or degradation of women. There is no denying that polygamy was accepted and practiced by the mainstream Mormon church for part of the nineteenth century, though it was not practiced by the majority of Mormons. (The great-grandfather of GOP candidate Mitt Romney, Miles Park Romney, was a polygamist in Utah, and ultimately left to Mexico with his family to escape prosecution for the practice.) It is also true that the practice continues today among some fringe Mormon sects, but it's far outside the mainstream of the official church. The stereotype that all Mormons practice polygamy sticks because of history and popular abuse, but not only is polygamy not an accepted practice within the Church of Latter-day Saints, it was proscribed by the Church over a century ago.

Polygamy in Mormonism started with Joseph Smith himself. Sometime in the 1830s, possibly in 1831, he reportedly received a revelation from God instructing him that polygamy was in fact not adultery, it was proper if ordered by God, and that he himself should practice it. Polygamy can be found in the Old Testament, notably with Abraham and Jacob (see Genesis 16:1-3 and 29:23-30), and thus the concept would not have been alien to Mormonism, which supports returning to the traditions of the Old Testament. Mormons have offered explanations as to why God revealed these instructions to Smith at that time, but ultimately the revelation is understood as the definitive reason for beginning the practice. In any case, though Smith began to engage in polygamy in the 1830s (possibly beginning with the teen-aged Fanny Alger), he did not make an open statement about it until 1843. Around that time Smith began to raise awareness about God's order amongst Church leaders, notably Brigham Young, who was reportedly initially repulsed by the idea but later reversed his view and engaged in polygamy, much to the anger of his first wife.  The number of women he ultimately married is unknown, though it probably exceeded fifty.  He did not have conjugal relations with many of his wives.

In 1852 the Mormon Church officially and publicly announced the practice of polygamy. It was considered to be an important practice as not only had God commanded it, but it was believed that the practice would grant a Mormon entrance into the highest levels of heaven. Around this time, and continuing until the end of the century, many Church leaders engaged in polygamy. They were generally the exceptions, not the rule, as they took many wives, whereas outside of the Church leadership Mormon men tended to take only a couple of wives, in part because considerable wealth was required to support a larger family. Though the percentage can be debated, it is generally accepted that no more than one-third of Mormons ever engaged in polygamy.

The emergence of this Mormon practice was met with a furious uproar from the rest of America. Indeed, in 1856 polygamy was condemned by the Republican Party, as a "twin relic of barbarism" (the other being slavery), and in the subsequent decades it increasingly came under attack. This began in earnest with the passage of the 1862 Morrill Bigamy Act, which attempted to make polygamy illegal but suffered from ambiguity and problems of jurisdiction. Furthermore, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln did not attempt to enforce the law rigorously. However, the crackdown on polygamy was renewed in the post-war period, as in 1874 the Poland Act was passed, giving federal judges the power to prosecute polygamists, and in 1882 the Edmunds Act was passed, making this task even simpler by making "unlawful cohabitation" punishable - an easier charge to prove. The final blow came in 1887 with the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which financially crippled the Mormon Church and drove home the dire threat facing the Church because of the practice.

During this period, Mormons did not take the prosecution passively. They frequently tried to fight back in legal cases and did everything to avoid and hinder legal prosecution, leading some Church leaders, such as John Taylor, president of the Church until his death in 1887, to go into hiding. While Taylor died opposed to the ending of polygamy, his successor Wilford Woodruff came to the conclusion that polygamy had to be brought to an end to save the Mormon Church. Thus in 1890, Woodruff officially announced an end to the practice, in his "Woodruff Manifesto," thus easing tensions between Mormons and the federal government, allowing for the restoration of Church funds and the admittance of Utah as a state. Because his manifesto did not carry the force of divine revelation, it was regarded in some quarters as less than definitive.  It also failed to address the issue of pre-existing polygamous marriages. Resistance to the decree and the performing of new marriages by some Mormons, led to a follow up decree, or Second Manifesto, in 1904, under Joseph F. Smith, which made the practice of polygamy punishable by excommunication.

The actions of the turn of the century, of course, did not bring a sudden stop to polygamous relationships, but the tension continues today as polygamy is still practiced by thousands of Mormons in utter defiance of the decrees. Disregarding the manifestos, because they are not revelations, these Mormons believe that they are in the right for upholding the order from God, but in the syes of the officials of the Church of Latter Day Saints, these Mormons are radical non-members. There continue to be efforts to crack down on these practices, which remain illegal under Utah and federal law, and the prosecutions of Tom Green, Fredrick M. Jessop and Warren Jeffs are testament to this reality. There also remain questions over unresolved aspects of polygamy, such as whether polygamy is practiced in the afterlife. But for all intents and purposes, the answer to the question is no: accepted, qualifying members of the Church do not practice polygamy.

Further Reading:

 

  • AP: Texas: 10-Year Sentence for Polygamist Marriages (11-8-11)
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  • BBC: Religions: Mormonism -- Polygamy (10-13-09)
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  • Washington Post: Five Myths about Mormonism (8-5-11)
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  • The Church of Latter-day Saints: Polygamy (Plural Marriage)
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  • PBS: People and Events: The Mormons -- Polygamy and the Church: A History
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  • Dummies.com: Undrstanding Polygamy in Mormon History

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