The Four Major Periods of Mormon Polygamy
by Todd M. Compton
Mormonism, like many Protestant churches, began as a restorationist movement, which is to say that it was dedicated to “restoring” everything in the Bible. Joseph Smith, Jr., Mormonism’s founding prophet, felt especially close to the Old Testament, so he believed his mission was to restore Old as well as New Testament traditions such as the authority of prophets, temple rituals, and the ancient Semitic custom of plural marriage.
According to Mosiah Hancock, whose father, Levi, reportedly performed a plural marriage for the Mormon prophet, the first of these unions occurred in Ohio in 1833 when Joseph married sixteen-year-old Fanny Alger. Smith’s next marriage, or “sealing” according to Mormon terminology, may have occurred in 1838 in Missouri, but the great majority of his thirty-three well documented marriages, give or take a few because formal records were not always kept, occurred in 1841-44 in Nauvoo, Illinois. There he combined restorationist biblical polygamy with the idea that one gained a higher status in the next life based on the quantity of wives and offspring in this life. This gave the religious rationale for large plural families in later Mormonism. Thus, polygamy—called “celestial” (meaning heavenly) or “patriarchal” marriage after the polygamous patriarchs of the Old Testament such as Abraham and Jacob—was accepted as necessary for “exaltation,” the highest salvation in the Mormon heaven. Present-day Mormons generally accept that eternal monogamous marriage is sufficient for exaltation but also still anticipate that there will be polygamy in heaven. Joseph Smith experimented with polyandry, as well, by marrying eleven women who were already civilly married to other men.
With very few exceptions, such as the practice of marrying older women in order to provide for them or to form an alliance in the next life, polygamy was oriented toward childbearing. For instance, Brigham Young had about fifty-six wives, many of whom maintained a platonic relationship with him; but he also had fifty-six children by nineteen of his connubial wives. His predecessor, Joseph Smith, never lived openly (“cohabitated”) with any of his plural wives, though some of them later confirmed that the union was sexual in nature. When Joseph Smith introduced polygamy as a religious necessity to his closest followers, some regarded it with Puritanical horror, while others accepted it and soon acquired large plural families of their own.
The Practice in Utah
During Smith’s lifetime, polygamy in Nauvoo and elsewhere was kept secret because it was also illegal. However, after Smith’s death, during the Mormon exodus to Utah, and in frontier Utah, the era of “open” plural marriage began and Mormons experienced the nuts and bolts of daily life in large plural families.
The results were various. One finds many inspiring stories of women and men who struggled against great challenges to make the ancient Semitic custom work in modern America. On the other hand, there are stories of polygamous husbands giving greater attention and financial assistance to favored wives, while less favored wives had a difficult time surviving financially and emotionally. Even in the best of plural marriages, a woman had only limited access to her husband’s time, resources, and emotional attention. To compensate, plural wives often developed especially close relationships with their children to make up for often distant husbands. Despite such problems, polygamy was regarded almost as the most central, highest revelation to Joseph Smith and a necessary prerequisite for complete salvation. It was widely accepted as a divinely inspired concept by church members, male and female. However, plural marriage was more widely practiced among the elite than among the church’s rank and file, a good number of the latter remaining monogamous. One myth about Mormon polygamy was that only about 2 or 3 percent of the church membership ever practiced polygamy. Actually, something like 20 or 30 percent of Latter-day Saints engaged in the practice depending on the statistical strategy one employs.
The motives for practicing polygamy, while primarily religious, also allowed for parallel objectives. Sometimes two prominent Mormon leaders cemented a friendship by one giving another his daughter (polygamy allowing such dynastic alliances to a greater degree than in monogamy). Sometimes polygamist men married widows or unmarried women to provide for them economically. Sometimes a man and a prospective plural wife felt a strong spiritual or emotional attraction.
One lingering myth of polygamy was that it was practiced by lustful old men who forced helpless young women into harems, a stereotype that was much prized by anti-Mormon propagandists and Western dime novels of the era. While undoubtedly there were abusive husbands, and many older men did indeed unite with younger women (a tradition beginning with Joseph Smith’s marriage to the fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Whitney in Nauvoo), most Mormons practiced the principle out of idealism and viewed sexuality almost from a Puritanical perspective, although child-bearing was, in fact, actively encouraged. As has been well documented, many plural wives were very intelligent and capable women.
The Legal and Political Battle
Some of the prominent visitors to pioneer Utah, such as Richard Burton and Mark Twain, looked at polygamy with respectful curiosity or irreverent amusement. However, there were reformers in the eastern states who were shocked by its affront to Protestant and Victorian mores, generally overlooking the fact that biblical prophets and some earlier Protestants had practiced polygamy. In 1854 the first Republican party platform inveighed against the “twin relics of barbarism” —slavery and polygamy—and after Congress passed the Merrill anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed it into law. Believing that the revelations of God took precedence over laws of man, Mormons ignored it. Yet, the political pressure against polygamy increased throughout the century. Utah was still a territory and desperately seeking statehood so it could legalize polygamy; as it happened, polygamy was one of the central reasons Utah could not obtain statehood.
In 1882 Congress passed the Edmunds Act, which disfranchised Mormon polygamists and allowed them to be imprisoned on grounds of “unlawful cohabitation.” John Taylor, the church president at the time, remained defiant, vowing that Mormons would never forsake plural marriage. He went into hiding, as did many prominent polygamists at the time. Nevertheless, many Mormon men were arrested by federal marshals (much despised in Utah) and served terms in jail as “prisoners of conscience.”
In 1887 Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker bill which required the church to give up its property to the federal government, including its prized temples. But the Mormons continued their counter-cultural quest: the church’s second in command, presidential counselor George Q. Cannon, served a term in prison for cohabitation in 1888. One of his statements is typical of the sentiment shared by many in the church at the time: “To comply with the request of our enemies [and give up polygamy] would be to give up all hope of ever entering into the glory of God, the Father, and Jesus Christ, the son. So intently interwoven is this precious doctrine [polygamy] with the exaltation of men and women in the great hereafter that it cannot be given up without giving up at the same time all hope of immortal glory.”
Nevertheless, legal and political pressure inevitably mounted until church president Wilford Woodruff, faced with the loss of all church facilities and any political influence in Utah, produced in 1890 what was called a “Manifesto” in which he stated that Mormons would give up plural marriage. This, along with the church’s commitment to staying out of politics, allowed Utah to become a state in 1896.
The transition to monogamy was not easy because polygamy had played such a central role in Mormon doctrine and culture for so long. It was regarded as theologically necessary for complete salvation. Many church leaders therefore continued a sub rosa promotion of polygamy, inaugurating what has been called the post-Manifesto era. The Woodruff presidency, including George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith, sent Mormons to church colonies in Mexico to be married plurally. Among the apostles (members of the second-highest quorum of the church), those who married plurally after the Manifesto included John W. Taylor, Brigham Young Jr., Marriner W. Merril, Abraham Owen Woodruff, Matthias F. Cowley, Rudger Clawson, Abraham Hoagland Cannon, and George Teasdale. Many of these marriages were solemnized in Mexico by Anthony Ivins, who later became a member of the First Presidency. Other post-Manifesto marriages were solemnized in Canada, shipboard on the Pacific Ocean, and in Utah and neighboring states.
Word of these secret marriages leaked out and anti-polygamy activists were infuriated. Apostle Reed Smoot, himself a monogamist, was elected a U.S. senator in 1904, but the Senate refused to fully accept him until it had examined the sincerity of LDS allegiance to its public Manifesto. The hearings were a great embarrassment to the LDS church. As a result, Joseph F. Smith released a “Second Manifesto” in 1904, reiterating that the church had abandoned polygamy. Two apostles who had been prominent in post-Manifesto plural marriages, John Taylor and Matthias Cowley, were released from the Quorum of the Twelve and subsequently dismissed from the church—excommunicated in one case and disfellowshipped in the other. Since 1904, LDS members who practice polygamy have usually been excommunicated. Meanwhile, Mormons have become monogamous to a remarkable degree as they have sought to enter the mainstream of American culture.
On the other hand, and partially as a result of the conflicting messages of church leaders during the post-Manifesto period, many Mormons felt the need to continue “the principle” even though they knew they would be excommunicated from the church as a result. They traced their authority lineage through what they describe as a secret transfer of authority effected by John Taylor in 1886. Most present-day polygamists view Mormon church presidents after Taylor as traitors to the true restored religion.
Presently there are an estimated 30,000-60,000 polygamist “fundamentalists” living in Utah and surrounding states. The two leading groups are the United Apostolic Brethren, located in a suburb of Salt Lake City, and residents of the twin border towns of Colorado City and Hildale (originally called Short Creek), straddling the Utah-Arizona border and known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The latter are the most conservative and separatist of all the major fundamentalist groups. In one of the ironies of history, the LDS church coordinated with political leaders for a police raid on Short Creek polygamists in 1953, during which mothers were separated from some 263 children and fathers sent to jail. This turned into a public relations debacle for the Utah and Arizona authorities.
Many fundamentalists continue to practice marital plurality for idealistic religious reasons. Nevertheless, in recent years the fundamentalist community has been plagued by power struggles that have sometimes ended in bitter disputes, financial losses, and violence, as well as accusations by teenage girls of having been pressured into abusive relationships with older men. A third group of Utah polygamists, the Kingston group, became widely known in 1998 when a fifteen-year-old girl accused her father of having forced her into marriage with her uncle as the uncle’s fifteenth wife; she stated that both her uncle and father had beaten her when she had tried to leave the relationship.
Echoes in Contemporary Mormonism
For many mainstream Mormons, practical polygamy has faded safely away into the pages of history. Nevertheless, the impact of polygamy lingers on. First, because there are so many statements in church literature in praise of polygamy—statements from Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and Joseph F. Smith, among others—stating that polygamy is necessary for the highest salvation, many present-day Mormons expect to be polygamists in the next life even though they may be personally uncomfortable with the concept. Influential apostle Bruce R. McConkie, in his book Mormon Doctrine, looked forward to the time when “the holy practice” of polygamy would be practiced once again. Furthermore, if a faithful man’s wife dies and the man remarries in the temple, he is sealed to both women for eternity. Many contemporary Mormon widowers thus regard themselves as “eternal polygamists.”