The practice of plural marriage

How do you respond to the criticism that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can't be Christian because the LDS Church at one time taught and practiced polygamy? I suspect a simple presentation of the facts followed by a few official statements of the Church should suffice. Before I do that, I would like to offer a few personal observations.

I do not have Utah pioneer heritage. I was born and raised in California. Members of my family are converts to the Church. My ancestors were from Tennessee and Missouri and were either Baptists or Presbyterians, including many who were ordained ministers. On the other hand, Carol's family is all from Utah and includes several ancestors who participated in plural marriage.

I have gained an appreciation of the social implications of plural marriage from reading the life histories and journals of some of Carol's great grandparents. Trust me, it was no picnic. They obeyed the counsel of their priesthood leaders and entered into plural marriages but it was not easy. There was conflict, petty jealousies and economic hardship. On the other hand, these marriages produced some of the most faithful and devout Latter-day Saints in Mormon history.

The early LDS practice of Plural Marriage

Polygamy — or more correctly polygyny, the marriage of more than one woman to the same man — was an important part of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a half-century. The practice began during the lifetime of Joseph Smith but became publicly and widely known during the time of Brigham Young. Today, the practice of polygamy is strictly prohibited in the Church, as it has been for over 100 years.

In 1831, Church founder Joseph Smith made a prayerful inquiry about the ancient Old Testament practice of plural marriage. This resulted in the divine instruction to reinstitute the practice as a religious principle. Joseph Smith entered into dozens of plural marriages, as did several of the early church leaders. It was not commonly known or practiced until the latter years of the Nauvoo period in 1842-43. Records are sketchy as to the details of this time.

Practiced openly by perhaps as many as 20 to 30% of the church members after the Saints moved to Utah, it was a source of contention to the rest of the nation for nearly fifty years. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church, received what Latter-day Saints believe to be a revelation in which God withdrew the command to practice plural marriage. It was difficult for some to accept this major change to their way of life.

President Woodruff issued what has come to be known as the "Manifesto," a written declaration to Church members and the public at large that stopped the practice of plural marriage. Today Church members honor and respect the sacrifices made by those who practiced polygamy in the early days of the Church. However, the practice is outlawed in the Church, and no person can practice plural marriage and remain a member. The doctrine is not taught in church curriculum.

Confusion about polygamy today

Polygamous groups and individuals in and around Utah often cause confusion for casual observers and for visiting news media. The polygamists and polygamist organizations in parts of the western United States and Canada have no affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that the term "Mormon" — widely understood to be a nickname for Latter-day Saints — is sometimes misleadingly applied to them.

President Gordon B. Hinckley stated the following about polygamy in the Church's October 1998 general conference: “I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law. They know they are in violation of the law. They are subject to its penalties. The Church, of course, has no jurisdiction whatever in this matter.

"If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church. An article of our faith is binding upon us. It states, 'We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law' (Articles of Faith 1:12).”

Summary and Conclusion

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not teach or practice polygamy or plural marriage and has not done so for over 100 years. Although the doctrine is still contained within our scriptures, specifically section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, it is not taught as a current doctrine and is not tolerated if practiced. Those who do so are excommunicated from the church. It was a time of our history that we consider a part of the restoration of all things.

The subject of polygamy continues to fascinate both members of the Church and those who are investigating the Church. It is a common topic for those in the media to write about or at least mention the practice in any major piece about the Church or its people that is published today. It is a source of humor for many, embarrassment for some and misunderstanding for most. It is a sacred principle, an extension of the law of Celestial Marriage and deserves greater respect.

I do not pretend to know everything about the doctrine or the practice. There are many experts both in and out of the Church that have researched and written extensively about it. I am saddened that some critics of the Church point to the history of plural marriage in the LDS faith as evidence that we could not possibly be true followers of Jesus Christ. We invite any who are seriously investigating our Church to get the facts before they embrace false accusations.


Johnna said…
There did seem to be some polygamists when the early church got started, since 1 Timothy 3:2 says "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, ..."
Anonymous said…
The LDS still practice plural marriage, but must wait until the first wife dies.
Anonymous said…
I realize a lot of plural marriages don't like to speak out in public, but I am doing a new documentary series and one of the episodes is about living in a plural marriage, so if anyone would like to share their story, please get in touch with me at

THere will be no angle on the topic, we are just sharing people's stories on various topics and this is one.

Hope to hear from you!
Anonymous said…
you mention that DC 132, which is still in LDS scripture talks about Polygamy but on the other hand we get excommunicated for practicing it. Why then do they keep DC 132 in the scriptures if it isn't scriptural anymore? furthermore, if this was such a key doctrine, how did it all of a sudden change? What other doctrines will be changed in the future?
twitterpated said…
In the Bible, there were righteous men who had more than one wife. Jacob comes to mind as someone who did only what things God commanded him. He certainly wasn't culpable of wrongdoing. Plural marriage is NOT against the law of God if the Lord has commanded it.

The view some church members mistakenly hold, however, that all righteous men will have more than one wife in eternity, is completely false. Are they as obedient as Jacob? That's a pretty high standard to live up to, if you ask me. So I think there's a lot of people who have an inaccurate view of the eternities as far as marriage is concerned.

The Lord specifically stated that he only permits plural marriages to raise up seed unto himself, and otherwise, he is against it. This says to me that men should not be the ones to determine how marriage is run. The Lord is the one who knows what can and ought to be done ... and when.

Personally, I think we have a lot to learn on the subject of plural marriage before we can fully understand it.
Unknown said…
This essay addresses polygny in such casual way, like if it was just a sleeve brush-off issue. Certified facts in evidence with many hisotrical groups and agencies document JS had over 30 wives, more than 10 of those he married while they were still married to other men, and 10 of them were 16 or younger. This is not "oh, by-the-way" matter.

And, if I might add, all of the points of doctrine you say cannot logically or realistically be presented during the conversion/missionary process, are not minor points of doctrine. I would strongly suspect that with cardinal issues such as these, you would want them up front before you signed onto a business partnership or joined a club.

How are they of no consequence since these points suck so many new converts away? Shallow testimonies...I don't think so. Disappointed and disillusioned...yup
Tim Malone said…
Casual? The intro and conclusion are mine but the body of the text was taken directly from the LDS Newsroom article. If it seems casual to you then perhaps it’s because I am so comfortable with the topic, having grown up with it all my life. I am fascinated by the responses of others to this doctrine and practice, especially those outside our faith or those who have recently left it.

Yep, the facts you cite are accurate. You can find most of Joseph’s marriages listed on Family Search – the Church’s site for genealogical research. I have written more extensively about this subject in a later essay, The plural wives of Joseph Smith. In there you can find links to a few online sources that provide good summaries as well as a recommendation to read a fascinating and in-depth 1997 treatise on the subject from Todd Compton entitled In Sacred Loneliness.

I’m not sure where you got the impression that the subject is not worthy of serious consideration. I’ve always considered it an important, although somewhat difficult subject to contemplate. I suspect that you have taken a response that you have shared elsewhere and deposited it here on my blog. I mentioned nothing in my essay about not covering points of doctrine in the process of investigating the church.

I wonder if you mistakenly believe that I am someone who sets policy as to what is taught and not taught in the missionary discussions. I always encourage those investigating our church to learn all they can, both the good and the bad, before committing themselves to baptism.

I have always expressed my opinion that studying the history of the church can be a real eye opener, especially for those who grew up in the church and never paid attention in Seminary or Sunday school. As for new converts being sucked away when learning about polygamy, I would like to see some statistics on that matter.

In my experience, it’s not learning about polygamy that causes new converts to question what they have done. It’s usually difficulty in adapting their lifestyle to the demands of the faith. Sometimes old habits creep back and cause them to feel unworthy of associating with the Saints. To me, it is much more important to understand repentance and taking the Sacrament weekly.

“Shallow testimonies...I don't think so.” Where did that come from? I wrote this essay in response to an individual who commented on an earlier essay that Mormons couldn’t possibly be Christian because some members of the early church practiced Polygamy.

“Disappointed and disillusioned...yup.” Are you disappointed and disillusioned? If so, I am sorry for you. I’m not sure what you find disappointing and disillusioning about learning the facts of Polygamy in the early LDS church. The facts are what they are. I believe what Joseph said about Polygamy, that it was required of him by the Lord as part of the Restoration of the Gospel. To me, it is evidence of his prophetic calling and submissiveness to God’s will for him.
Unknown said…
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