Mormon Beliefs: Plural Marriage (Polygamy) & Families in Early Utah

by Larry Richman on December 18, 2013

lds-mormon-pioneer-lifeThe Church continued enhancing the Gospel Topics pages on LDS.org by posting an enhanced page titled “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah.”

The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that the marriage of one man to one woman is God’s standard. In the Book of Mormon, the Lord explains that a man should have one wife, but then explains “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” (see Jacob 2:27, 30). God has commanded men at specific periods in history to have multiple wives, such as Jacob (see Genesis 30:3-4, 9), Abraham (see Genesis 16:325:1D&C 132:34-35), Isaac, Moses, David, Solomon, and some of the early Latter-day Saints (see D&C 132).

In accordance with a revelation to Joseph Smith (see D&C 132), the practice of plural marriage 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 plural marriages. In 1890, the Lord inspired President Wilford Woodruff to issue a statement known as the Manifesto that led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.

After the Manifesto, monogamy was advocated in the Church. On an exceptional basis, some new plural marriages were performed between 1890 and 1904—especially in Mexico and Canada—and a few in the United States. In 1904, the Church strictly prohibited new plural marriages.

Today, Latter-day Saints do not practice polygamy, regardless of its legal or cultural acceptance. Even in countries that permit plural marriage, polygamists are not allowed to join the Church and members who practice it are excommunicated.

Here are a few facts about the practice of polygamy in the early Church:

  • All Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle of plural marriage as a revelation from God, but not all members were expected to live it.
  • 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.
  • Women were free to choose their spouses, whether to enter into a polygamous or monogamous union, or whether to marry at all.
  • Although some leaders had large polygamous families, two-thirds of polygamist men had only two wives at a time.
  • Women unhappy in their marriages could obtain divorces and remarry.
  • Frontier women married at fairly young ages in the first decade of Utah settlement (age 16 or 17 or, infrequently, younger).
  • By 1857, about half of the Utah territory’s residents lived in a polygamous family. That number fell to 25-30% by 1870 and continued to decline thereafter.

I invite you to read the entire essay about polygamy, which adds historical information and context to understand this complex issue. It includes scholarly research done by outside historians and has many links to additional information. (Be sure to notice all the links to additional information in the right margin on that page.)

Jan Shipps, a non-LDS scholar and pre-eminent expert on Mormonism, says the essay is a “well-done summary of what has been covered by several scholars who have spent years researching plural marriage.” She explains, “Now the people who Google a question about Mormon history will get good scholarly answers, rather than the kind that have been provided by anti-Mormons or people who are not experts in the field.”

The enhanced Gospel Topics pages (topics.lds.org) are part of a broad effort by the Church to encourage personal and family gospel study, including more contextual information about Church history.

For additional information about polygamy, read the articles “Do Mormons practice polygamy?” on Mormon.org and “Polygamy” in the Church’s Newsroom. (Notice several additional links on the right side of the Newsroom page.)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew December 18, 2013 at 4:55 pm

The one thing that jumps out at me is that the Lord did NOT inspire Woodford to sign the manifesto. He did it clearly because the saints lacked the faith to fight the federal government. The Lord revealed to John Taylor when the same manifesto was presented “why would I recind an eternal commandment?”

tonu nuusila December 23, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Plural marriage was not for every one. It was reserved n only given to worthy priesthood holders that was approved by the prophet. Unfortunately there were many members that proceeded to do it on their own without consent from proper authority due to their covetous unrighteous base desires.

Lee Rhea April 8, 2014 at 3:00 pm

After reading the essay I ‘m left with a few questions. The essay approximates the percentage of members engaged in polygamy at 50%, however, Gordon B. Hinckley stated on national TV that it was only practiced “…on a restricted scale…between two and 5 percent.” Since the essay shows no authorship or date, are we to give more credence to the annonymous essay, or to the Prophet? As far as the continued practice of polygamy, is it not an eternal principle that is still formalized in the temple? Finally, the ages of the polygamous brides, often in their teen years, is not the issue—it’s the chasm of respective ages of many marriages, such as John Taylor wedding a 26 year old when he was 78.

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