Explaining Polygamy and Its History in the Mormon Church

Explaining Polygamy and Its History in the Mormon Church
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The arrest of polygamist leader Lyle Jeffs, evictions of polygamist families and new studies on crippling genetic disorders among small ultra-orthodox or “fundamentalist” Mormon communities in rural Utah have made headlines this summer.

This spotlight on polygamy is likely to make the majority of Mormons who are nonfundamentalist uncomfortable. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) – the mainstream Mormon Church with 15 million members worldwide – publicly rejected polygamy in 1890. But to this day, mainstream Mormons encounter stereotypes of polygamy.

As a scholar of Mormonism and gender and a Mormon myself, I know that the truth about Mormonism and polygamy is complicated and confusing. For more than 175 years, polygamy and tensions surrounding it have defined what it means to be a Mormon – especially a Mormon man.

Beginning of polygamy

Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, the Mormon movement from its beginnings offered a unique perspective on the religious role of men.

One of the most influential events in the life of Joseph Smith was the death of his 25-year-old brother Alvin in 1823. In 1836, Joseph Smith had a vision of Alvin Smith in heaven. Based on this vision, he developed the Mormon teaching that families could be together in heaven if they underwent religious rites – called “sealings” – in Mormon temples. Any faithful Mormon approved by church leaders could perform these sealings.

Due in part to this powerful role it gave to men in helping to save the people they loved and brought to heaven, Mormonism attracted proportionally more male converts than any other American religious movement of the time.

In the early 1830s, Smith extended this view of the role of men to include polygamy as it was practiced by Old Testament prophets like Abraham. Smith taught that a righteous man could help numerous women and children go to heaven by being “sealed” in plural marriage. Large families multiplied a man’s glory in the afterlife. This teaching was established as doctrine in 1843.

Rumors that polygamy was practiced by a small cadre of LDS Church leaders spurred mob violence against early Mormon settlements in Illinois and Missouri. In the face of this opposition, Smith counseled Mormon men to be “crafty” – contemporary scholars have interpreted this to mean alert, wise and “resourceful” – in their practice of polygamy and use of “sealings.”

After the murder of Joseph Smith in 1845, Mormons migrated to Utah territory in 1847, and there, under the leadership of Brigham Young – who succeeded Joseph Smith – brought the practice of polygamy out of the shadows. LDS leaders announced plural marriage as an official Mormon Church practice in 1852.

Following Young, Mormon theologians heralded polygamy as a core doctrine and as evidence of patriarchal manliness. By the 1880s, an estimated 20-30 percent of Mormon families practiced polygamy.

Polygamy laws, fundamentalist groups

However, after the U.S. Civil War, a growing controversy over polygamy united Americans – in both the North and South. Politicians, preachers and novelists decried it as an evil equal to slavery.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. the United States (1878) that polygamy was an “odious” practice. The court said,

“Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people. At common law, the second marriage was always void, and from the earliest history of England, polygamy has been treated as an offence against society….”

The United States Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act (1887) authorizing the seizure of LDS Church assets and making polygamy a federal offense. Entire families went “underground” to avoid imprisonment. Mormon men were stereotyped as fanatics who exploited innocent converts to satisfy their “sexual degeneracy.” Mobs in the American South in the 1880s attacked Mormon missionaries.

Under pressure, LDS Church President Wilford W. Woodruff announced in 1890 that the Mormon Church would no longer sanction plural marriages in adherence with the law of the United States. Still, such marriages continued to be performed among Mormons in Mexico – some of whom emigrated from Utah to northern Mexico specifically to continue polygamy – or by rogue LDS leaders through the 1920s.

In the 1930s, seven leading Mormon polygamists banded together to form a loose confederation of Mormon fundamentalists to keep polygamy going. Several were excommunicated from the mainstream LDS Church and formed close-knit fundamentalist communities across the West – from Canada to Mexico – that survive to this day.

New depictions of masculinity

While fundamentalist Mormons broke off from the LDS Church in the early 20th century to continue their open practice of polygamy, those who remained members of the LDS Church made a hard turn toward the American mainstream and assimilation.

These mainstream Mormons developed new norms of Mormon manhood that seemed safer to the American public.

Moving away from the stereotype that Mormonism was led by fanatical prophets with multiple wives and long beards, as Mormons assimilated, LDS Church leaders developed a more modern clean-shaven appearance and a bureaucratic, corporate style of managing church affairs.

Between 1890 and 1920, LDS participation in the Boy Scouts (which began in 1911), bans on smoking and alcohol, and conservative sexuality helped to defined this new Mormon manhood. Donny Osmond, Steve Young and Mitt Romney exemplify the modern Mormon norm.

Still, it is my experience as a lifelong Mormon that LDS people with strong cultural and familial ties to the faith commonly believe that polygamy will be a fact of life in heaven. The LDS Church publicly renounced the practice of polygamy in 1890, but it has never renounced polygamy as doctrine, as evidenced in LDS scriptures. It has always permitted and continues to permit men to be married in Mormon temples “for the eternities” to more than one wife.

The ConversationThis tension between private belief and public image makes polygamy a sensitive subject for Mormons even today.

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