Separated but not Divorced: The LDS Church’s Uncomfortable Relationship with its Polygamous Past

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Abstract: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s uncomfortable relationship with its polygamous history is somewhat like an awkward marriage separation. This is, in part, because of the fitful, painful cessation of plural marriage and the ever present reminders of its complicated past. This essay looks at examples of members’ expression of discomfort over a polygamous heritage and concludes with suggestions of possible pathways to a more comfortable reconciliation.

Divorce can be an ugly, painful experience that leaves all involved angry, confused, and embarrassed. The separation before the actual divorce can often be even more embittered. The period between the separation and actual divorce can seem nebulous and interminable. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s uncomfortable relationship with its polygamous past is much like the painful interim between when the parties have gone their separate ways but are not yet allowed to completely sever their ties.

Plural marriage was introduced to Church members by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 1840s as a commandment from God and continued as doctrine and an official practice until 1890.1 Official Church support for plural marriage ended [Page 46]after the Manifesto, and many members have come to see this change as the final end of plural marriage. The historical record, however, clearly demonstrates that Church leaders intended at least a few plural marriages to continue without the Church’s public sanction and encouragement.2 This contributed to the difficulties of the next few decades. The practice suffered a slow, difficult death as the Church and its members came to terms with the demise of the practice and yet continued their efforts to keep what they regarded as a sacred principle alive.

By the end of these few decades, a number of members had doctrinally and physically separated themselves from the body of the Church because they continued to teach and practice plural marriage. In spite of their migration out of the mainstream Church, discomfort within the Church persisted and intensified over time. Members were stung by the presence of those who had chosen to continue plural marriage outside of the Church’s control.3 This constant reminder to both members and the outside world has embarrassed and bothered Church officials and members alike.

[Page 47]This essay will examine the uncomfortable relationship between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its polygamous past and the effect this discomfort has had on its members. I will examine examples of members’ expression of discomfort over a polygamous heritage and conclude with suggestions of possible pathways to reconciliation.

A Complex, Often Misunderstood History

From the time of its introduction, plural marriage has been wrapped in controversy. The confusion and conflict began with the secrecy and prevarication of Joseph Smith when he revealed plural marriage to a trusted circle of the Nauvoo elite.4 Plural marriage was not openly practiced until after the Saints left Illinois and were safely ensconced in the Great Basin of the western United States. Plural marriage continued to be practiced in the open until the anti-polygamy persecution of the 1880s and the issuance of the Manifesto in 1890. After that, the practice again went underground and was once more surrounded by a veil of secrecy which made it even more difficult to completely stop.5

Unfortunately, the obfuscation which attended the beginning and end of the official practice of plural marriage—necessary though it was—provided ammunition for anti-Mormons and anxiety for modern Church members. From the 1840s to the present, anti-Mormon literature has accused Church leaders and members of immorality and lasciviousness, [Page 48]with suggestions that Joseph Smith started plural marriage to cover-up his own adulterous affairs.6 The 1840s saw some early purveyors of the lustful and lascivious stereotype in the supposed insider exposés of John C. Bennett and the Van Dusens.7 Ironically, some of these clichéd stereotypes are still being used today. Not surprisingly, many members have believed these unfortunate and mostly false accusations and stereotyping, in no small part because some historians have repeated and embraced them uncritically.8

Joseph Smith’s involvement in so-called polyandrous marriages added to the image of him as a man with unbridled lust. Anti-Mormon literature has portrayed Smith as sneaking around behind unsuspecting husbands’ backs and seducing willing women. In fact, most of the literature discussing these marriages suggests Joseph had sexual relations with these women, usually without the cuckold husband’s knowledge.9

[Page 49]Another accusation of more recent date, perhaps even more insidious than the previous, charges the Mormons of pedophilia because of marriages with teenage brides.10 This [Page 50]slur has been aimed particularly against Joseph Smith in order to attack his claim to be a prophet of God. These and other negative claims against early Mormon polygamy have caused understandable mental and spiritual turmoil for members.

A Constant Reminder

There are thousands of fundamentalist Mormons throughout the Intermountain West who are a constant reminder of Mormonism’s polygamist past. Indeed, some even try to dress like 19th-century Mormons, except in neo-pioneer style pastel dresses topped off with a bizarre hairstyle. Mormon fundamentalism seems to be ever-present, even invading television on shows such as the now-ended HBO series “Big Love,” which one television critic described as understanding “local culture,” “our idiosyncrasies,” and, in fact, “the whole Mormon thing.”11 While some people would contest this description, the television show did, nevertheless, have an impact and likely encouraged the reality show “Sister Wives” as well as other copycat reality fare gracing the cable channels.

“Sister Wives” follows the large family of Kody Brown and his four wives. The show’s first season was set in Utah Valley until the Utah County police began to investigate the family. The Browns then moved to Las Vegas, where they continue to produce their show.12 Not to be outdone, the Darger family [Page 51]published Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage.13 They took to the talk show circuit to describe their lifestyle and went so far as to suggest they were the inspiration for the family on “Big Love.” Given the Darger’s soap opera adventures, this might be a rather dubious honor.

Most recently, Rebecca Wall Jeffs Musser, a former plural wife of Rulon Jeffs, with the assistance of award-winning author M. Bridget Cook Burch, published The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice.14 This is a fascinating account of her life within and eventual escape from the FLDS, a branch of the fundamentalist movement.

It is television shows and books like these that confuse non-Mormons. Since the time of the Manifesto, there has been suspicion that Latter-day Saints still practice plural marriage.15 Rumors and stereotyping of secret Mormon polygamous marriages have continued to the present, as news commentators and political pundits alike misconstrue and misrepresent LDS history and doctrine. For example, television talk show host Bill Maher explained that Mormonism is “a religion founded on the idea of polygamy. They call it The Principle. That sounds [Page 52]like The Prime Directive in ‘Star Trek.’”16 Is there any wonder a 2011 poll undertaken by a California polling company found that almost half of those polled thought “Mormons either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ practice polygamy”?17

This non-Mormon perception of Latter-day Saints is more prevalent than many members of the Church realize. I remember a fifth or sixth grade classmate who came to my central California elementary school and said, “You’re a Mormon, right?” I answered in the affirmative, and he then announced, “My father says Mormons can have more than one wife. Is that true?” I thought he was joking. I thought everyone knew we no longer practice plural marriage, so I played along with him.

“Sure,” I said, “My dad has three.”

Unfortunately, he believed me, and it took a little bit of explaining for him to finally believe I had been joking and that members of the LDS Church no longer practice plural marriage.18

Other members of the Church have recounted anecdotal evidence of the widespread perception of polygamy among mainstream Mormons. Hamani Stevens of the University of Oregon football team recounted how “the usual misconception [Page 53]about Mormonism is that we all believe in polygamy.”19 That mistaken perception is compounded and exploited by merchandizers like Wasatch Brewery in Park City that sells “Polygamy Porter,” a beer whose advertisement invokes a polygamy theme, asking “Why have just one?” Along with the beer, they sell polygamy-themed merchandise. “The Polygamy Porter T-shirts are our best seller,” the owner explained. “One guy from Japan ordered 5,000 of them for resale.”20 Another alcoholic beverage company banking on the polygamy image is Five Wives Vodka, an Ogden, Utah distillery whose suggestive label displays five women in old-fashioned nightgowns.21

The Church Reacts to Present-Day Plural Marriage

It is within this milieu of multifarious information and misinformation that modern members of the Church are placed. Many are confronted with these issues regarding plural marriage without a firm understanding of the LDS Church’s polygamous past. Even some of those who became aware of plural marriage at a young age approach the subject through a 21st-century prism that warps their understanding.

It isn’t surprising that modern members are ignorant of Mormon plural marriage and the context in which it was practiced, since the LDS Church has, in many ways, downplayed and even ignored its own history. As one historian explained regarding the 20th-century Church’s approach to plural marriage:

[Page 54]As time passed, fewer and fewer Mormons came to identify personally with polygamy. By the 1950s Mormons had become thoroughly Americanized and tended to display a split opinion about polygamy. On one hand, they were immensely proud of the sacrifices made by their pioneer ancestors, but as modern Americans and the very model of American family values, they were also uncomfortable with their heritage of socio-sexual experimentation. Raised on Essentials in Church History and similar volumes and never hearing of Joseph Smith’s own plural relationships in general conferences or in other official publications, the new public memory began to take root.22

It is human nature, explained one Mormon blogger, to “choose aspects of our past that we feel define us. In like manner, we hide or diminish those things that embarrass us.” One of those things is Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy because “it seems that his polygamy is only in the picture when we’re called upon to defend him.”23 Such an approach is not confined solely to individuals.

The Church of Jesus Christ itself has been described as “a Church very much against polygamy” that “will continue to distance itself as far away from polygamy as possible.”24 As [Page 55]previously explained, the Church has, since at least the late 1920s, repeatedly tried to distance itself from fundamentalist Mormonism and modern plural marriage. These strenuous denials have continued to the present, in large part because of the negative publicity generated by Warren Jeffs, the FLDS, and other branches of Mormon fundamentalism.

For example, the Public Affairs Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, over the years, issued a number of press releases explaining that the Church does not practice or allow plural marriage and has differentiated between the LDS Church and fundamentalist Mormons.25 There have also been comments by Church leaders. In 1998, the late LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley proclaimed, “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.”26

LDS Apostle M. Russell Ballard stated in a Semiannual General Conference session, “Let me state clearly that no polygamist group, including those calling themselves Fundamentalist Mormons or other derivatives of our name, have any affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ [Page 56]of Latter-day Saints.”27 LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland was even more outspoken in referencing the fundamentalists, “We haven’t practiced polygamy for over a century…and it’s a little frustrating to have these fundamentalist groups resurface.”28

Discomfort about the Church’s polygamous past is particularly noticeable in Church-produced literature and at Church-owned historical sites. Almost any discussion of the subject seems to be discouraged through a lack of mention in the manuals and public presentations. For example, several years ago the priesthood/Relief Society manual on the teachings of Brigham Young included a timeline of significant dates in his life, including his first marriage and his second monogamist marriage after the death of his first wife. There was not, however, any mention of Brigham Young’s plural marriages. And, later, the priesthood/Relief Society lesson about Doctrine and Covenants section 132 discussed celestial marriage but did not mention plural marriage. A whole lesson about Doctrine and Covenants 132 and not one mention of plural marriage? A manual focused on the present-day application of doctrine might understandably devote little attention to plural marriage, but complete silence may heighten the sense that we are ashamed and that there is actually something to hide.29

[Page 57]I remember being about 15 or 16 years old and visiting Brigham Young’s Winter Home in St. George. The sister missionary was giving the tour to what appeared to be a non-member family and me. The missionary told how Brigham Young’s wife would keep house, and I naturally wondered which wife, so I asked. Her expression approximated that of a deer in the headlights, and she replied, “Well, his wife.”

“Okay,” I persisted, “Which wife?”

“Well, his wife.”

I finally realized that she did not want to discuss Brigham’s plural wives, especially if I was accompanied by non-members, so I dropped the subject.30

This experience is likely not an anomaly. A number of years later I was organizing a visit of some dignitaries to Salt Lake City. Recognizing their interest in history, I decided to arrange a tour of the Beehive House to accompany the usual tour of Temple Square. When I suggested to a volunteer at Church Hosting that we take the guests to the Beehive House, she immediately said, “Oh you don’t want to do that.”

I asked why not and she gave a nervous laugh and said, “Well, you know.”

“I know?” I said, somewhat puzzled.

She gave another nervous laugh and repeated, “You know.” She continued, “They might ask questions.”

“About plural marriage?” I wondered.

“Yes,” she responded, relieved that I had understood at last.

“Well,” I replied, perhaps a little too sarcastically, “we wouldn’t want them to do that.”

[Page 58]“No,” she answered. I thanked her and hung up, amazed at the extent of her embarrassment and effort to avoid the subject.31

A Polygamy Survey

This palpable discomfort with polygamy is shared by regular members of the Church. In preparation for this essay, I conducted an unscientific online survey of attitudes about plural marriage among current and former members of the LDS Church. The survey was not random, as people were contacted by e-mail and on Facebook and asked to participate and to spread the word among their LDS family and friends. There were approximately 400 people who participated in the survey with an almost even mix of men and women.32

In spite of the limited number of respondents, there actually was a good variety of people from different ages and backgrounds in terms of marriage status and activity in the LDS Church. There was not, unfortunately, a good representation of race and ethnicity: almost all of the respondents were Caucasian, with just a few identifying themselves as Hispanic or Asian/Pacific Islander.33 Respondents lived all over the United States as well as in Canada and several other countries. Not surprisingly, the largest number of respondents who identified their place of [Page 59]birth were from Utah, with the next largest group identifying their birthplace as somewhere in the western United States. The midwestern United States also had a good representation, as did Canada (especially western Canada). Even so, 12 other countries were represented, most from European countries.34

Over 47% of survey respondents heard about polygamy as a child while another 39% heard about it as teenagers, for a total of over 86% learning about plural marriage while in their childhood or youth. That is a significant number. While there were a variety of ways people first learned about plural marriage, about 42% of respondents said they learned from their family.35

Obviously, those who converted later in life did not have family who could explain the background of the doctrine and practice. Converts’ reactions varied, and for some the concept was difficult to accept. One convert, who joined at age 24, wasn’t told about the Church’s polygamist past until after he was baptized. His first thought was, “What a dumb idea, why would anyone want more than one woman telling him what to do?”36 Another convert who did not learn about plural marriage was a woman who was “distressed about the very thought of having [to] share my husband with another.” It bothered her enough that she discussed it with other members, and she was told to pray about it. Through prayer and a very powerful dream she experienced, she “no longer worried about it all.”37 [Page 60]Unfortunately, many members are not reconciled to aspects of plural marriage.

While 57% of respondents said their feelings were neutral toward polygamy when they first became aware of it, over a quarter of the respondents’ reactions were unfavorable to very unfavorable. These negative feelings increased when confronted with criticism of the Church on the subject of plural marriage. At the time of the survey, 30% of the respondents had unfavorable to very unfavorable feelings regarding plural marriage. Of those who had a very unfavorable feeling toward plural marriage at the time of the survey, over three quarters of them learned about polygamy as a child or teenager.38

An intriguing survey finding was that almost 58% were children or teenagers when they learned about Joseph Smith having plural wives. Surprisingly, only 4% of the respondents did not know he had plural wives. Of those who were aware, thirty percent had learned from a family member while almost ten percent learned from sources critical of the Church.39

As interesting as the survey statistics were, the most fascinating parts of the survey data were the respondent comments. They were similar to statements that I have heard and read in other settings and reflect a combination of discomfort, embarrassment, and ignorance regarding plural marriage. Comments ranged from the positive to the negative and for some people, the discovery of the Church’s polygamous past was devastating.

Beyond an overall dislike for plural marriage expressed by those who had negative views, there were several factors that seemed to particularly distress them. These included the lying about plural marriage, the apparent polyandrous marriages of [Page 61]Joseph Smith, the teenage wives of Joseph Smith, and the idea that plural marriage will be practiced in the celestial kingdom.

Lying About Plural Marriage

Some members of the LDS Church have expressed shock and puzzlement that early Church leaders such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young would lie about plural marriages before the public announcement of the doctrine and practice. Even more disturbing for these members is the possibility that they have been lied to by modern Church leaders. Unfortunately, many believe the lack of information in official Church publications about plural marriage is a form of cover-up. They interpret this lack of information as a species of lying—about Joseph Smith, about other Church members’ polygamous past, or about the events which surrounded the cessation of Church-sanctioned plural marriage.

For example, one survey respondent wrote, “The Church has done much to cover up that part of its history, and little to bring the truth into the light. That makes me sad.” Another wrote, “In general I was OK with polygamy, thinking it was instituted by Brigham Young. Finding out Joseph Smith practiced was a shock—as I had not learned this in Church. Discovering the details of his polygamous practices was particularly distressing (polyandry, 14-year-old-wives, etc.). These details (in part) caused me to lose my testimony.”40

Such shock at the prospect that Joseph Smith would have practiced plural marriage reminds me of an experience I had almost thirty years ago. I commuted between Provo and Salt Lake City and enjoyed visiting with other regular commuters, [Page 62]all of whom were active members of the Church. During a conversation regarding Mormon history, I mentioned in passing that Joseph Smith had plural wives. One woman got an angry look on her face and exclaimed, “He did not! Brigham Young might have done that, but Joseph Smith never would.” I let the subject drop.

Given the lack of available information from official sources, it isn’t surprising that members like this woman would believe Brigham Young was the prophet who introduced plural marriage. One of the members of a private e-mail group of faithful Latter-day Saints wrote, “EVERYTHING that Correlation has produced, since its inception, indicates the Church is running away from polygamy as fast as it can.”41

Polyandrous Marriages of Joseph Smith

For many active and disaffected members of the Church, certain aspects of Joseph Smith’s polygamy have been difficult to understand or accept. The prospect of polyandrous plural marriages seems particularly problematic. For some, it has been too much. One survey respondent wrote, “Inadvertently finding out the truth about polygamy/polyandry absolutely devastated me.”42 Another complained about Joseph Smith “shacking up with women for years” and then wrote, “I am glad I discovered the truth about dirty Joe’s polyandry.… I am much happier as a saved Christian outside the vile, lying Mormon cult.”43

Discovery of Joseph Smith’s polyandrous marriages can be a traumatic experience. One faithful Latter-day Saint wrote of his in-laws’ learning of Joseph Smith’s polyandry, “My [Page 63]mother-in-law’s eyes bulged out.”44 One woman who found out about Smith’s polyandrous marriages, combined with other issues regarding Joseph Smith and Mormonism, declared she was “done, done and DONE!!!”45 Another woman’s exit letter from the Church had a series of accusatory questions including, “Why did Smith marry and have sex with 11 women who were married to other men at the same time, some of whom he sent away on missions before marrying their wives? Why did he marry young teenagers, including 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball, who had both parents and didn’t want to be married?”46

Joseph Smith Marrying Teenagers

Joseph Smith’s marriages to teenagers have increasingly become a stumbling block to faithful members. In fact, some have left the Church specifically because of this issue. The depth of dismay occurs in part because of the negative publicity attending Warren Jeffs’s marriages to under-aged brides as well as modernity’s changed concept of childhood and adulthood. Nevertheless, it remains a problem that is extremely difficult for some members to reconcile and even some of the most faithful Latter-day Saints remain troubled by it.

For example, one active Latter-day Saint in a private e-mail group opined about possible similarities between Smith and Jeffs, “None of this eases the nagging feeling in the back of the brain that somehow Warren Jeffs is a 21st-century Joseph Smith.”47 This same member had previously written, “I can see [Page 64]how the Jeffs case really could be a problem for some. Jeffs, in a way, is practicing what Joseph practiced. Polygamy. Teenage wives. Sex with teenage wives.”48

Plural Marriage will be Practiced in the Celestial Kingdom

The idea that plural marriage will be practiced in the celestial kingdom, the highest degree of salvation in Mormon theology, probably elicits more comments and reaction from the women of the LDS Church than any other aspect of plural marriage. A few reasons suggest themselves: first, while 19th-century polygamy happened, it is, after all, in the past. Eternal plural marriage would be in the future, and, for some Latter-day Saint women, that makes it a very dark future. Second, celestial polygamy seems to evince a degree of sexism in the Church and even God’s eternal plan.

One female survey respondent commented, “I don’t feel a need to defend the original practice, and I don’t think it is an eternal principle. It is not part of my ‘testimony’ of the Church.”49 Another respondent referred to the idea that plural marriage would extend into the eternities as nothing more than “folk belief,” which “is very distressing, especially to women of faith,” and “many individuals of LDS background have left the Church over this and similar issues.”50

In July 2011, Mormon author and blogger Jana Riess wrote about an e-mail she had received from a former Latter-day Saint woman who had “eventually left the Church over several issues, including the persistence of polygamous theology among Mormons.” Riess went on to explain, “As for individual belief, I’ve occasionally heard it taught from the pulpit (and Relief Society’s lace-draped table) that heaven will be polygamous. To [Page 65]be fair, in the RS lesson this declaration evoked criticism and debate of a kind not often seen in RS.”51

An outspoken skeptic of the plurality of wives as an eternal principle is former BYU professor Valerie Hudson. At the 2011 FAIR Conference, Hudson gave a presentation describing plural marriage as an Abrahamic sacrifice, or an “exception to God’s law” rather than an eternal principle.52 Her conference presentation, titled “A Reconciliation of Polygamy,” was based on an earlier article of hers titled “Polygamy.” Hudson claimed that “in the eternities we will have the privilege of living under the law, not the exception to the law.”53 She further referred to the belief, which she felt was mostly held by male members of the Church, as nothing more than “celestial lust.”54 In her article, she also made comments regarding modern Latter-day Saint beliefs about the eternal nature of plural marriage:

If cultural misinterpretations cause the women and men of the Church to mourn over polygamy, either because they mistakenly believe that God is indifferent between sacrifice and non-sacrifice and so no escape from this sacrifice will be provided by God or because they are led to believe that they are selfish and not [Page 66]righteous if they feel pain at the thought of polygamy, then these cultural interpretations are actively harming our people. We then have a duty to root out these cultural misinterpretations from our midst, lest they cause great spiritual mischief.55

Echoing the thought that belief in plural marriage as an eternal principle should be rooted out among Latter-day Saints were several faithful Latter-day Saints who actively discuss Church doctrine and history. One man commented, “I see a lot of men… in the Church who have become a little too complacent in pat (but unsatisfying) answers to questions about polygamy and women’s issues in the Church, which causes some understandable frustration for women trying to see how they’re still of equal importance.”56 In response to that comment, a woman wrote, “I have watched a current thread about polygamy on the message board. For the very first time, I am seeing outright ‘no’ in response to will there be celestial polygamy. And not just one isolated no. We are indeed turning a corner… finally.”57

Another active Latter-day Saint responded:

Are you suggesting that what is making you pleased is the denial of relationships in the Celestial Kingdom? That some are now agreeing—on message boards—that polygamy is something that will NOT be present in the post [mortal] world in any form, by any couple? I am not sure that those that faithfully practiced it many years ago would be with that conclusion—do you? [Page 67]Their sacrifice, etc., involving the practice was in vain and for a false principle????58

The discussion by e-mail continued back and forth between those who believed that plural marriage was a celestial principle and those who either did not believe or at least questioned whether it was indeed something that would be practiced in the Celestial Kingdom. As the discussion grew heated, one group member observed in a private e-mail to another, “Most of those who did not agree with the reinterpretation of whether or not plural marriage…will be practiced in the Celestial Kingdom…have been hammered into submissive silence by louder voices and the powers that be.”59 Near the end of the online discussion, one of the men answered a woman who adamantly expressed her belief that plural marriage would not be a requirement or even a possibility in the celestial kingdom. “If this is the only thing that is causing all this polygamy angst why not just accept that it is NOT a requirement to have multiple wives in heaven and let it go at that? If someone believe[s] differently is it really worth getting upset over and offended? I would think not.”60

Not surprisingly, the ambivalence among even active, faithful Latter-day Saints regarding plural marriage continues. In a 2012 e-mail discussion between fellow Latter-day Saints about Joseph Smith and polyandry, one member wrote, “There really is a chance that these married women might have been just as interested in the ‘prurient’ side of this as Joseph Smith.”61 [Page 68]Another later agreed that “polyandry, no matter how you try to present it, is weird. That’s just how it is.”62

Suggestions of What To Do

Unfortunately, over time there have been a number of members of the Church who have been upset and offended about aspects of plural marriage, especially the so-called “weird” aspects. This has led to unanswered—perhaps even unspoken—questions, as well as hurt feelings, insecurity, and resentment. Even more tragically, accidental discovery and/or inadequate teachings about the Church’s history and relationship to plural marriage have caused crises of faith which have alienated members of the Church and, in many cases, led to their eventual departure from the faith.

Even one soul lost over the now-unpracticed principle of plural marriage is too many. The Church and its defenders have begun to take steps to inoculate members against the insidious attacks of critics and enemies. Anti-Mormons are constantly pushing and picking at members’ faith in order to plant seeds of doubt and to destroy members’ testimonies. Plural marriage has proven to be a prime weapon because a little of the truth can be devastating. This weapon must be neutralized. While steps have been taken to inoculate members, more can be done.

Here are some suggestions that might help members avoid the potential negative impact of the Church’s plural marriage heritage.63 Members need to be taught the full history of the Church, including plural marriage from Joseph Smith into the 20th century. Plural marriage did not start nor end abruptly. The commencement and particularly the end of plural marriage [Page 69]were fitful and certainly painful for those involved. This and other facts about plural marriage need to be understood by Latter-day Saints, so information and specific detail regarding the theology and practice of plural marriage need to be provided at the appropriate time and place. The place is easy—a Church setting in which accurate information may be taught in programs such as Primary, Sunday School, and Seminary. The time or times of such sacred education needs a little more explanation.


There is gospel wisdom in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way they should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” This gospel principle certainly includes learning about Church history and doctrine. When people learn gospel principles as children, they are able to grow in their understanding as they learn line upon line, precept upon precept.64 It should be the same regarding the Church’s history of plural marriage.

Of course, the teachings should be simple and matter-of-fact information such as mentioning in passing that early Church leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, as well as other early members of the Church, were commanded by God to have more than one wife. Then it should be emphasized that we no longer practice plural marriage. With simple explanations, children become aware of this aspect of Church history without being overly burdened by all of the complexities. My wife and I, for example, would explain to our children about their own ancestors from the time when they were able to understand. As they grew up, we would point to pictures of ancestors on the wall and explain how they came from his fifth wife or that the lady in the photograph was the plural wife of the man in [Page 70]the photo hanging next to hers. As the children grew in age and understanding, we would explain a little more so that by the time they were teenagers, they had a broad familiarity with Mormon polygamy as a historical reality.


Our teenage youth need to know about plural marriage, including the fact that Joseph Smith, by commandment of God, introduced the doctrine and practice of the plurality of wives. A couple of years ago, I was talking with one of my daughter’s 16-year-old friends, a descendant of LDS polygamists, and mentioned Joseph Smith’s plural wives. Her eyes bugged out, her mouth dropped open, and she asked in a weak voice, “Joseph Smith had more than one wife?” Afterward, she repeated several times that she was blown away.65

If my daughter’s friend had been taught from her childhood, she would not have been blown away. Furthermore, if she had been learning about the Church’s polygamous history in the youth Sunday School programs, she would have had a better foundation on which to stand. Unfortunately, she was not alone in being shocked to learn Joseph Smith had plural wives. For some of our youth, the shock is too traumatic for their tender testimonies.

When my daughter heard about her friend’s shock at learning that Joseph Smith had plural wives, she said, “You didn’t know that? I thought everyone knew that.”

I replied, “They don’t all have parents like you do.” As with every gospel principle, the foundation needs to be laid in their childhood and then built upon in their youth with more information about the faith and sacrifices practicing plural marriage necessitated among the Saints, as well as the reasons for ending the practice.
[Page 71]


By addressing difficult aspects of Church history like plural marriage in their childhood and youth, eventually an understanding of the historical practice of plural marriages would be commonplace among active adult members of the Church. Nevertheless, with reactivation success, there will always be a need to teach adult members about the Church’s polygamous past.

There should, then, be a better historical and doctrinal explanation of plural marriage in adult Gospel Doctrine classes. Members should learn that one practices plural marriage only when God commands it through his prophets, and we are following the prophet by not presently practicing it.

New Members

Not all members of the Church have been members since their childhood, and too many new converts have stumbled upon the Church’s history of plural marriage and have been shocked and even angered they were not told of it before their baptism. Missionaries should learn more about the history of plural marriage and then mention this in a faithful way before converts’ baptisms.

This brings up another matter that needs to be addressed: missionaries at Church historical sites must be taught how to discuss the topic of Mormon polygamy because it is inevitable it will be brought up by curious visitors. Gains have been made since the days I observed palpable discomfort in missionaries and volunteers. Nevertheless, more should be done since the obvious discomfort and embarrassment of Church representatives is not only fodder for anti-Mormons but also sets a poor example for their fellow members, many of whom are struggling with their own ambivalence about plural marriage.

[Page 72]If missionaries, as well as other members of the Church, are given more information to gain a better understanding and firmer foundation regarding the history and doctrine of plural marriage, they might not be so uncomfortable discussing it with non-Mormons. That understanding will come through appropriate Church courses and Church literature. Rather than plural marriage being noticeably absent from Church publications, it should be adequately discussed. It should be placed within historical and theological context and be available as resource material for Saints with questions or for those who need to respond to questions.

Now, in a world-wide Church such as the LDS Church, not all members will have the same need for or interest in information about the Church’s polygamous past. For example, this topic is probably not as important to African or Asian Saints as it is to those living along the Wasatch Front. For that matter, it may not even be as important to Saints residing in the eastern parts of Canada and the United States as it is to those residing in the western United States. And while such issues might be of little interest in one stake or ward, members in a neighboring stake or ward might be very interested or have a need for further teaching and explanation. Therefore, leadership at different levels could decide what and where to teach its members, as well as who might be the most knowledgeable and able to teach such sensitive matters.66

Hopefully these suggestions will help those who are troubled or discomforted about the Church’s legacy of plural marriage. At the very least, it might help dispel the popular [Page 73]perception that plural marriage revolved around sexuality—and not only sexuality, but the dominance of male sexuality. Because of plural marriage’s inherent sexual implications, it is natural there would be some discomfort and embarrassment. But sexual relations and procreation were only one aspect of plural marriage.

True, many non-Mormons and even some members nervously—or insensitively—joke about the plethora of plural wives in a suggestive way. Most of these people, however, are just trying to find a way to react to something that is so contrary to accepted marriage patterns. Latter-day Saints should remember that while there are certainly non-members who want to attack, criticize, or simply make fun of the Church’s polygamous past, there are many who are genuinely curious and who mean neither harm nor insult. For example, a number of years ago I showed some important guests around the Family History Library and then the neighboring Museum of Church History and Art, both in Salt Lake City. After leaving the museum, they tentatively, almost apologetically, asked me about how plural marriage started and what it was like. I told them I would be glad to answer any question they had. We spoke for at least 45 minutes during which time I was very open and honest about aspects of plural marriage, including my own family’s history. They thanked me for being willing to so openly and comfortably talk about plural marriage. They said they had asked other Mormons about plural marriage and had been met with embarrassment, silence, and awkwardness.67 I was sorry for both them and the members who had not known how to gracefully react to honest curiosity.
[Page 74]


When marriages suffer from serious problems, separation almost always leads to either reconciliation with the hopes of the marriage surviving or to divorce. While some periods of separation are longer and uglier than others, a finality is almost always achieved. Unfortunately, such an outcome is not the case for Latter-day Saints and their polygamous history. Since few anticipate plural marriage’s return, and even fewer hope for it, the estranged partners are not getting back together. But, on the other hand, the Church and its members will never be able to divorce themselves from historical plural marriage. No matter how hard the LDS Church may try to cut ties to its polygamous past, the two are irrevocably and inseparably tied to each other.

With every separation or divorce comes uncomfortable reminders of former relatives. In many ways, Fundamentalist Mormons are like Latter-day Saints’ former relatives—ex-uncles or crazy former cousins who cause embarrassment and discomfort, for they remind us of a married past we would rather forget. Quite often, in spite of divorce, extended family members remain connected because of a common interest, such as children. In many ways, the Fundamentalists are the Latter-day Saints’ extended and somewhat estranged relatives. After all, both the LDS Church and Fundamentalist Mormons share common roots and attributes. And, like plural marriage itself, they are not going away.68

The LDS Church and its members must confront and accept not only its past but also the fact that the Church will probably forever be associated with polygamy. Indeed, in the minds of [Page 75]many people, 19th-century Mormon polygamy defines western polygamy.69 Accepting that the twain are inseparable does not mean the Church must acquiesce to the negative stereotyping used by its critics. Faithful historians and scholars can and should continue to study the Church’s polygamous past in order to help members better understand and appreciate the complex history of Mormon polygamy. By so doing, they will be able to help present and future members trump critics’ attempts at malicious manipulation.

Furthermore, the Church must accept that there will always be coat-tail relatives to remind its members of their past. The Church has done a good job of differentiating itself from its Fundamentalist relatives, particularly with renegade groups like the FLDS, who have exemplified the fact that while there are similarities, there are many more differences. The Church should probably highlight the differences when needed and otherwise ignore Fundamentalist groups like the FLDS as much as possible.

Whether or not the particular suggestions in this essay are adopted, the goal of leaders and defenders of the Church should be to aim for a more knowledgeable membership who thereby exhibit less discomfort and embarrassment about the Church’s past relationship to plural marriage. Ultimately, the hope for Saints who struggle emotionally and spiritually with plural marriage is that a better understanding of the history [Page 76]and doctrine of plural marriage will encourage greater faith and bring solace to the soul.


The author would like to thank Suzanne L. Foster, Brian C. Hales, Laura Hales, and Gregory L. Smith for their help with this paper.

1. Joseph engaged in one plural marriage with Fanny Alger in the 1830s. He did, however, not require any other members to practice the doctrine until the Nauvoo period. See Don Bradley, “Mormon Polygamy before Nauvoo? The Relationship of Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger,” in The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy, eds. Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2010), 14–58, and Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 1:85–126.

2. It should be noted that while most of the sanctioned post-Manifesto plural marriages were performed outside of the United States, some were performed within U.S. borders. For more information regarding these post-Manifesto marriages, see Drew Briney, Apostles on Trial: Examining the Membership Trials of Apostles Taylor and Cowley (Salt Lake City: Hindsight Publications, 2012); B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992); and D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18/1 (Spring 1985): 9–105.

3. For examples of people who chose to secretly practice plural marriage while still members of the LDS Church, see Craig L. Foster, “The Persistence of Plural Marriage Within Mainstream Mormonism: The Example of the Barr and Mary Musser Family,” in Scattering of the Saints: Schism Within Mormonism, eds. Newell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2007): 290–314.

4. As already noted, Joseph Smith entered into plural marriage before the Nauvoo period. His first plural wife was Fanny Alger in 1835–1836 as explained by Bradley, “Fanny Alger,” in The Persistence of Polygamy, 14–58.

5. For an excellent discussion about this pivotal time period, see Gregory L. Smith, “Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” FAIR, 2005, accessed January 20, 2014,

6. For a more detailed discussion of anti-Mormon accusations and stereotyping, see Craig L. Foster, “Victorian Pornographic Imagery in Anti-Mormon Literature,” Journal of Mormon History 19/1 (Spring 1993): 115–32; “Old Themes and Stereotypes Never Die: The Unchanging Ways of Anti-Mormons,” FAIR, 2003, accessed October 14, 2011,, and Craig L. Foster, Penny Tracts and Polemics: A Critical Analysis of Anti-Mormon Pamphleteering in Great Britain, 1837–1860 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2003).

7. John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints; or, an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842). Increase and Maria Van Dusen published a series of “tell all” pamphlets about the temple ceremony and polygamy during the 1840s and early 1850s. For more information on the Van Dusens, see Craig L. Foster, “From Temple Mormon to Anti-Mormon: The Ambivalent Odyssey of Increase Van Dusen” Dialogue 27/3 (1994): 275–86.

8. Examples of some who have furthered and even built upon some of this sensational and inaccurate stereotyping are Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945); George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: “. . . but we called it celestial marriage” (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008); and Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986).

9. “Joseph Smith married other men’s wives while they were still married to their husbands,” Mormon Think, accessed October 12, 2011, This website noted Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner married Joseph Smith in 1842 when she was seven months pregnant and queried whether the child was Adam Lightner’s or Joseph Smith’s. Another example of anti-Mormon accusations of adulterous polyandry can be found at, “Polyandry & Joseph Smith,” accessed October 12, 2011, Unfortunately, George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy appears to not only accept the idea that Joseph Smith was sexually involved with these women because parts of the book are reminiscent in language and imagery of early anti-Mormon exposés. For a discussion of Nauvoo Polygamy, see Craig L. Foster, “Review of Nauvoo polygamy: ‘…but we call it celestial marriage,’” Mormon Historical Studies 11/1 (Spring 2010), 155–58. Brian C. Hales, on the other hand, in an excellent essay, “Joseph Smith and the Puzzlement of ‘Polyandry,’” in The Persistence of Polygamy, 99–151, offers a compelling argument for the proposition that Joseph Smith’s polyandrous marriages were non-sexual and were “eternity only” sealings. Hales expands this argument about Joseph Smith’s “polyandrous” marriages in his three volume work titled, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013). Another source providing good answers and positive information regarding Joseph Smith’s polyandrous marriages is “Joseph Smith and Polyandry,” FairMormon Answers, accessed February 22, 2014,

10. For examples of accusations of Joseph Smith and pedophilia, see Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy; Mark Webster, “He’s a Dangerous Man: God Talk and Sexual Abuse,” Beyond Christian Apologetics Ministry, December 13, 2010, accessed October 14, 2011,; and Sandra Tanner, “Joseph Smith as a Sexual Predator,” Mormon Coffee: It’s Forbidden But it’s Good, June 21, 2009, accessed October 12, 2011, Ironically, Mary Elizabeth Rollins, who was mentioned above, was 16 when she married Adam Lightner, and yet critics have not condemned Lightner for marrying a teenager when he was 25. In contrast, Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith use both history and a statistical review of Mormon and non-Mormon marriage practices in Illinois and neighboring Iowa to demonstrate that marriage to teenage women was not uncommon for the place and time in which Joseph Smith lived, nor was it considered pedophilia: “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context,” in The Persistence of Polygamy, 152–83. Alternately, Todd D. Compton, in an essay in the same volume, 184–232, titled, “Early Marriage in the New England and Northeastern States, and in Mormon Polygamy: What Was the Norm?” argues that such age gaps between marriage partners were unusual, but because his analysis relies on New England marriage patterns rather than those of the frontier, I do not believe he has rebutted the perspective offered by Foster, Keller, and Smith. For more information showing Joseph’s Smith’s marriages to teenage wives were not out of the cultural and social norm of his time, see “Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Marriages to Young Women,” FairMormon Answers, accessed February 22, 2014,

11. Scott D. Pierce, “More Often Than Not, Big Love Gets it Right,” The Salt Lake Tribune, December 28, 2010, accessed April 10, 2014,

12. Steve Chapman, “Kody Brown and His Four Wives,”, July 14, 2011, accessed July 14, 2011,, and Brent Bozell, “TLC’s Lobbying Show,”, July 15, 2011, accessed July 15, 2011,

13. Joseph Perkins, “Will Same-Sex Marriage Lead to Legalized Polygamy,” Christian Post, October 8, 2011, accessed October 8, 2011,

14. Rebecca Musser and M. Bridget Cook, The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013).

15. See for example, Mollie, “Picturing Polygamists,” Patheos (December 24, 2011), accessed February 15, 2014,, and “Do Mormons Practice Polygamy?”, accessed February 15, 2014,

16. Joseph Walker, “Sarandon Calls Pope a ‘Nazi,’ Maher Calls Mormonism ‘Ridiculous,’” Deseret News, October 20, 2011, accessed October 21, 2011,

17. Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Poll: Most Still Unsure about Mormons and Polygamy,” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 12, 2011, accessed September 13, 2011, According to the newspaper article, the Lawrence Research poll found that 15% said Mormons definitely practice polygamy while another 31% said Mormons probably practice polygamy: a total of 46%.

18. Craig L. Foster, “Like Two Crazy Aunts in the Attic: Latter-day Saints and Popular Polygamy Stereotypes,” Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, accessed January 20, 2014,

19. Sam Finley, “Duck Football: From One Mission to Another…,” Eugene Daily News, September 16, 2011, accessed September 16, 2011,

20. Bill Redeker, “Beer Maker Finds Polygamy Ads Sell,” “Good Morning America,” February 8, 2011, accessed February 10, 2011,

21. Bill Frost, “Idaho Bans Ogden’s Five Wives Vodka,” City Weekly, May 29, 2013, accessed January 20, 2014,

22. Stephen C. Taysom, “A Uniform and Common Recollection: Joseph Smith’s Legacy, Polygamy, and the Creation of Mormon Public Memory, 1852– 2002,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35/3 (Fall 2002): 136.

23. David Grua, “From Embrace to Embarrassment: Remembering Joseph Smith’s Polygamy,” The Juvenile Instructor (November 2, 2007), accessed August 24, 2011, On a positive note, the LDS Church has recently taken a more active approach to interpreting and defining its polygamous past. In December 2013, the LDS Church published an essay titled, “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” accessed January 20, 2014,

24. Melissa Crabtree, “Modern Mormon Misconceptions Linger,” CBS 42, Birmingham, Alabama, September 26, 2011, accessed September 28, 2011, or, accessed April 10, 2014.

25. For examples of numerous press releases and public statements regarding past and modern plural marriage, see The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Newsroom: The Official Resource for News Media, Opinion Leaders and the Public,

26. Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking About Us?” Ensign (November 1998): 70.

27. M. Russell Ballard, “The Importance of a Name,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints October 2011 General Conference Addresses, accessed October 24, 2011,

28. Michael Brissenden, “The Mormon Moment,”, October 18, 2011, accessed October 19, 2011,

29. Newell G. Bringhurst, “Where Have All of Brigham Young’s Wives Gone?: Latter-day Saint Ambivalence over Its Polygamous Past,” in The Persistence of Polygamy, 88, and Lesson 31: “Sealed . . . for Time and for All Eternity” in Doctrine and Covenants and Church History: Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, accessed February 14, 2014,—for-time-and-for-all-eternity?lang=eng. The manual emphasized that plural marriage “should not be the focus of the lesson.” On the positive side, unlike earlier Sunday School manual referred to, the online version of the latest Sunday School manual includes an explanation and discussion points about plural marriage.

30. Foster, “Like Two Crazy Aunts in the Attic.”

31. Foster, “Like Two Crazy Aunts in the Attic.”

32. The survey on plural marriage was titled “Your Feelings About Plural Marriage” and was conducted at SurveyMonkey, located at between September 16 and October 20, 2011. There were 400 respondents, with a little over half being male. While this survey was intended only for those of a Latter-day Saint background, at least two respondents identified themselves as non-Mormons. There were also several who identified themselves as fundamentalist Mormons of former LDS membership. While another, more up-to-date survey was not conducted before publication, anecdotal evidence suggests attitudes have not changed between fall 2011 and winter 2014.

33. “Feelings About Plural Marriage.” There was one who chose Native American as an identifier while there were no African-Americans represented.

34. “Feelings About Plural Marriage.” Over 230 of the respondents were born in Utah or the western United States. Interestingly enough, 5 of the respondents were from England, with at least 3 of them identifying themselves as fundamentalist Mormons.

35. “Feelings About Plural Marriage.”

36. John Kitzmiller, personal interview, October 13, 2011. He explained that he was not troubled by the knowledge as the Church was a restoration of all things.

37. “Claire,” e-mail correspondence, October 4, 2011. Copy in author’s possession.

38. “Claire,” October 4, 2011. The percentage with very unfavorable feelings toward plural marriage was the highest among the possible unfavorable, including possible unfavorable feelings toward the LDS Church.

39. “Feelings About Plural Marriage.”

40. “Feelings About Plural Marriage.” In contrast to the perception the Church and its leaders try to hide the Church’s past, one respondent wrote that he had previously had problems with polygamy until a general authority visited his mission and, during a question and answer period, explained the background of plural marriage. From that point on, the respondent was okay with it.

41. “Polygamy in the Spotlight,” e-mail correspondence, July 14, 2011. Copy in author’s possession.

42. “Your Feelings About Mormon Polygamy.”

43. “Your Feelings About Mormon Polygamy.”

44. “How to Explain Polyandry to the Church Membership,” e-mail correspondence, July 14, 2011. Copy in possession of the author.

45. “Your Feelings About Mormon Polygamy.”

46. Dianne Chryst Ormond, “It Started with Science,”, 2006, accessed October 15, 2011,

47. “Nate Oman on Jeffs and Modern Mormonism,” e-mail correspondence, August 25, 2011. Copy in possession of author.

48. “Nate Oman on Jeffs, ” August 25, 2011.

49. “Your Feelings About Mormon Polygamy.”

50. “Your Feelings About Mormon Polygamy.”

51. Jana Riess, “My Polygamous Heaven . . . Not,” Flunking Sainthood, July 5, 2011, accessed August 11, 2011,

52. Joseph Walker, “Recent Events Highlight Confusion of Polygamy,” Deseret News, August 6, 2011, accessed August 7, 2011,

53. “Recent Events Highlight Confusion of Polygamy.” For the actual presentation, see

54. Valerie Hudson, “A Reconciliation of Polygamy,” presentation at the 2011 FAIR Conference, notes in possession of author. At the time, Hudson suggested some Mormon men had “celestial lust.” She compared these men to the young Muslim suicide bombers who killed themselves and others expecting to be rewarded with 72 virgins in the hereafter. Her comparisons troubled, even angered, some conference attendees.

55. V. H. [Valerie Hudson] Cassler, “Polygamy,” <<Square Two 3/1 (Spring 2010), accessed May 14, 2010,

56. E-mail correspondence between [anonymous] and Craig L. Foster, August 11, 2011. Copy in author’s possession.

57. E-mail correspondence, August 11, 2011. Copy in author’s possession.

58. E-mail correspondence, August 11, 2011. Copy in author’s possession.

59. E-mail correspondence between [anonymous] and Craig L. Foster, August 14, 2011. Copy in author’s possession.

60. E-mail correspondence between [anonymous] and Craig L. Foster, August 13, 2011. Copy in author’s possession.

61. E-mail correspondence between [anonymous] and Craig L. Foster, February 17, 2012. Copy in author’s possession.

62. E-mail correspondence between [anonymous] and Craig L. Foster, August 7, 2012. Copy in author’s possession.

63. It is not my place to advise Church leaders on how to handle this problem and, therefore, these suggestions should be seen as such—simple suggestions that might help.

64. 2 Nephi 28:30.

65. Foster, “Like Two Crazy Aunts in the Attic.”

66. The LDS Church leadership already does a very good job of listening to and trying to address the needs of its members. However, it is obvious more needs to be done to answer the questions and concerns of members of all ages. When there are problems in different places around the world over difficult subjects like plural marriage, such as the recent apostasy problems in Sweden, leadership could then place even more emphasis on the education of its members in those specific places.

67. Foster, “Like Two Crazy Aunts in the Attic.”

68. Unlike Warren Jeffs and a small minority of polygamists, most Fundamentalist Mormons are quiet, law-abiding (other than practicing polygamy) people of good report who generally blend in with the rest of society and who have no desire to attract attention to themselves or their religious practices.

69. For examples of Mormon polygamy defining western polygamy, see Jessica Ravitz, “‘Sister Wives’ explained: A fundamentalist Mormon polygamy primer,” CNN Belief Blog, October 25, 2010, (accessed February 22, 2014);; Michael E. Price, “Are People ‘Naturally’ Polygamous?” Psychology Today, August 18, 2011, (accessed February 22, 2014); and W.W., “Polygamy Now!” The Economist, June 28, 2013, (accessed February 22, 2014),

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About Craig L. Foster

Craig L. Foster earned a MA and MLIS at Brigham Young University. He is also an accredited genealogist and works as a research consultant at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. He has published articles about different aspects of Mormon history. He is the author of two books, co-author of another and co-editor of a three volume series discussing the history and theology of plural marriage. Foster is also on the editorial board of the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal.

48 thoughts on “Separated but not Divorced: The LDS Church’s Uncomfortable Relationship with its Polygamous Past

  1. Hello,
    I enjoyed your writing. I wanted to let you know what my grandmother once told me . Her grandmother was Mary Rollins Lightner, the daughter of Mary Elizabeth. This is second-hand so you can take it for what it’s worth, but she told me that she had asked her grandmother if her mother had ever had sexual relations with Joseph Smith to which she answered in the negative.

  2. Dear Craig
    Thanks for the article, I thought it was addressing some of the real issues that effect us in the Church.
    I am not an American and have been a member of the Church all my life, I am now 65 all of which I think is important in what I have to express in this reply.
    I would like to comment on the reasons why ‘The Church’ has not addressed the more difficult issues that are now swamping our membership, with little real addressing from “The Church”.
    I see it largely as cultural, not as many propose that the Church is lying.

    I have been in contact with people from Utah since I joined the church aged 8. I have studies and lived in the east of the US and lived in Utah. What I found and still do, is that Western American Culture is highly romantic, it just loves the ‘unicorn and rainbow’ view of the world, with more than a hint of what I call ‘threatening guilt’ from many who have come to Australia in Leadership positions form the US, particularly the West. Coupled with this is “The Church’s” (US) profound interest in ‘business modelling’ as a means for operation as opposed to a ‘religious model’ or even a real ‘pastoral model’.
    What I have also found is that when saying this, it is viewed as ‘negative’ and anti American. This is in fact the issue; that asking difficult questions does not seem to be part of the Church culture. As an Artist/ Art Professor in a former life, perhaps the Kantian idea of “disinterested interest” might be exercised in Church Culture (including my Australia Church culture too) when evaluating issues where we come to a issue without a preconception, so we can have an “aesthetic’ (Kantian), spiritual experience…..where truth might be revealed.
    With lack of any real critical review and indeed little action, the Church seems to skip over the ‘difficult and unpleasant’ to simply focus on the ‘dumb down’ version of our history and have a mania for ‘business’….. to just get ‘it’ done. No nuisance or subtlety.
    I have taught the YSA Class and the Adult Sunday School class for many years now and am mystified, especially by the lack of history in the ‘Doctrine and Covenants and Church history’ (this is NOT the only manual that need urgent attention). I think the Church is failing its membership poorly here! We are playing directly in the hands of anti Mormon propaganda and the question that come to my mind is “Are we afraid of the truth”?. I think not! BUT we are doing our best to fake it!
    Craig, I think information on these matters is not of greater interest to just some areas of the US, I had letters from friends in the UK and Italy on these matters and as I served as a Senior Missionary in Poland recently, investigators were VERY much into these topic which I must admit surprised me as English is not always there second language…but they found plenty of anti Mormon internet information.
    My only hope is that we do have some forums in the Church (Sunday lessons is the obvious) to discuss these issues, there needs to be a REAL rewriting of sections of our lesson manuals dealing with these issues and others. As an educator all my professional life I am excited as the possibilities of curriculum development in our manuals. We could integrate with the internet….. talks from our leaders, academic articles, visuals, interactive with phones, iPad’s etc…..we could have a breath of serious information and it could be presented in such a way that it could address the ‘new’ and those who require much more in formation. I only hope and assume, this is on its way?
    Many Thanks

  3. Some feel that the Church could have done things like include discussion of polygamy in more of the teachings. Even if it was along the line of “was a necessary teaching because of the need to re-establish the legitimacy of sealing all wives and children in eternity” There’s a brilliant explanation for polygamy given by Brigham Young to a Southern professor on 9 July 1843. That could certainly have been more widely taught, along with then an explanation of why polygamy had to be stopped in 1890/1904 (because it isn’t sustainable long-term as a mortal practice).

    I imagine some would question why modern manuals have avoided mentioning the prophets’ multiple wives, if polygamy hasn’t been hidden.

    My youngest daughter (15) is rather amused because she knows all about polygamy and Bennett and all that. There is nothing anyone can “tell” her at some future time about our Church’s history that will rock her world. But in many families and congregations, there is no one able to explain the history in a faithful manner. I’ve seen a beloved friend who is a patriarch wave his hands about how Joseph’s work was true despite his “imperfections.” Another friend has been going through a severe faith crisis after being “exposed” to various historical facts, even though his father is a general authority.

    Omission of facts is understood by many to constitute lying. So while I agree that the Church has not actively told falsehoods, through omission false representations of the past have arisen, and this appears to be the “lying” folks are referring to.

    On the other hand, they are sometimes lying themselves. But to people like me who were taught about the fact of polygamy from childhood, the charge of “lying” was never persuasive.

  4. Being an older, lifelong, active Mormon I have a very firm testimony of Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon etc. BUT never,the,less I’ve been disappointed/dismayed at some of the less than forthright presentation by the church of some of our past history. The hiding causes me more concern than the events being hidden. Anything God directs or allows one of his propthets to do is OK with me even though I may not understand it -nor does it have to be justified to my limited understanding of the entirety of God’s perspective or intentions. But that’s different than just hiding it or even worse denying that it happened. (is this justified so that non or new members won’t be lost before the seed is planted and germinated—-what then when they discover it later, thru an antagonist slant–and it’s been hidden from them by LDS members [or Church] that they’d trusted). {note: Though I didn’t interfere to correct others’ desire to entertain my children with the Christmas fable of Santa Claus–I DID NOT LIE TO THEM ABOUT IT EITHER!!! I did wonder though when these same fable tellers lamented that we didn’t seem to have enough of the TRUE meaning of Christmas!}

    • There is a fascinating narrative “out there” that suggests that the church has lied about its history. I think that, at best, that is a misunderstanding of the nature of history and organizations. At worst it is simply a fabrication that selectively picks up on information that people may not have known and used that as part of the narrative. I have seen the work of artists as evidence that the church hides information.

      I am certainly not a historian of the modern church, but with what I have seen of the development of various teachings and explanation, lying just doesn’t fit what happened. The church, like pretty much any institution, was interested in its history and created ways to present that history. What I have seen doesn’t suggest anything different than other histories. Even if the way things were understood a century ago differs from the way we think we understand the church today, I can’t see lying as a proper description of history. It is certainly very difficult to suggest in the current environment.

    • Critics routinely accuse the Church of suppressing and hiding uncomfortable historical facts from its own people. Church members, Church leaders, and even Church historians are constantly improving their understanding of Church history as historic documents, diary’s, journals, etc… continue to be studied and better understood. Just because a clearer understanding comes forth does not mean that prior leaders or historians were lying. They were often just using the best information they had at the time.

      Regarding denials of plural marriage see this site:

      The Church’s’ primary mission is to testify that Jesus Christ is the divine Savior of the world and the Son of God and that His Church is restored to the earth. During regular Sunday church meetings there is not time to delve into all the nuances and details of Church history. That’s why, in addition to Sunday Services, the Church has publications which discuss church history in further detail and that’s why the Church makes the information available to researchers and allows them to publish the information. Members often do not avail themselves of this additional information.

      It is remarkable; however, how many of the issues which critics charge the Church with “suppressing” are discussed first in Church publications. You might be surprised to find out that many of these “hidden” facts are actually hidden in plain sight in Church publications and other scholarly research made available by the Church. The members just don’t read them.

      Elder Dallin H. Oaks discussed this issue in the context of polygamy:
      “Some have suggested that it is morally permissible to lie to promote a good cause. For example, some Mormons have taught or implied that lying is okay if you are lying for the Lord… As far as concerns our own church and culture, the most common allegations of lying for the Lord swirl around the initiation, practice, and discontinuance of polygamy. The whole experience with polygamy was a fertile field for deception. It is not difficult for historians to quote LDS leaders and members in statements justifying, denying, or deploring deception in furtherance of this religious practice. “ (Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teachings About Lying,” BYU Fireside Address, 12 September 1993, typescript, no page numbers; also printed in Clark Memorandum [of the J. Reuben Clark School of Law, Brigham Young University] (Spring 1994). All references to Elder Oaks in this wiki article apply to this speech, unless otherwise indicated)
      Elder Oaks then then points out that sometimes there will be situations when two moral ideals clash. Sometimes, people who wish to make moral choices are faced with difficult choices. For example:
      • if a rapist breaks into your house, and demands to know where your teenage daughter is hiding, are you morally obligated to tell him?
      • if you are a French Christian hiding Jews from the Nazis in 1941, are you obliged to tell the SS about the whereabouts of the Jews if they ask? Is it wrong to lie to them?
      • if the government seeks to destroy families formed under plural marriage, is breaking up those families appropriate? Should one abandon wives and children without support, or avoid telling the whole truth?
      In all these examples—and there are many more like them—one cannot be both completely honest when confronted with a hostile questioner and meet other very real ethical demands. Doing both is simply not an option. Elder Oaks notes:
      “My heart breaks when I read of circumstances in which wives and children were presented with the terrible choice of lying about the whereabouts or existence of a husband or father on the one hand or telling the truth and seeing him go to jail on the other. These were not academic dilemmas. A father in jail took food off the table and fuel from the hearth. Those hard choices involved collisions between such fundamental emotions and needs as a commitment to the truth versus the need for loving companionship and relief from cold and hunger.
      My heart also goes out to the Church leaders who were squeezed between their devotion to the truth and their devotion to their wives and children and to one another. To tell the truth could mean to betray a confidence or a cause or to send a brother to prison. There is no academic exercise in that choice! “

  5. My father told me that while he was in the mission home in the 1940’s, the assembled missionaries were addressed by a member of the twelve who asked all those who were descended from polygamous families to stand. About 3/4 of those present stood. The apostle then went on to tell them that plural marriage had fulfilled its purpose by raising up a seed that was distinguished for its fidelity to the gospel and to the Church.

    My uncles told of a similar poll being taken when they were in the mission home in the 1950’s. I was given to understand that this was a routine practice. So, when I entered the mission home in the 1970’s, I expected to be asked the same question, but it was never mentioned. Apparently being descended from a polygamous family was no longer considered an honorable distinction.

  6. Craig

    Thanks for the article, which I completely agree with. Our virtual refusal to discuss certain elements of our polygamous past, while understandable, has certainly had its downsides.

    I do (kind of) agree with some of the comments that talk about our current practice of eternal polygamy – i.e. a living man may be sealed to more than one wife if the first has died. So while we don’t currently practice mortal polygamy, we do appear to be practicing eternal polygamy. In saying that, given it is not a requirement for me to live the principle, I am not expecting any explanation that will help me understand it (based on a rather tenuous interpretation of D&C 132:3), and so while I would like to understand the principle itself, that desire is more out of curiosity than anything else and I’m content enough where I am on the subject.

    In relation to Meg’s articles on the un-named “other” website, I have personally found her narrative to be the *only* one that actually makes any kind of sense from a faithful perspective, tying up all sorts of loose ends. Yes there are some assumptions that are made because clear records appear not to exist in some instances, but all historical narratives contain assumptions – as Richard Bushman noted, no history is truly objective. I certainly don’t consider any of the women mentioned to have been besmirched by the narrative. In fact, my love and admiration for Joseph, Emma, and the one woman of whom I assume you are referring have been *increased* through reading Meg’s posts.

    Just my thoughts anyway. And thanks again for the excellent article.

  7. Your reaction to the necessary realignment of the history, which potentially identifies several early polygamist women as victims of John C. Bennett, is exactly why Joseph and Emma and 172 years of Mormon history would have avoided this possible interpretation of the data.

    Is it so shameful for these women to have been misled that we will continue to imagine Bennett had no identifiable victims, while imagining that it was Joseph and his faithful followers who were the sexual reprobates?

    For that matter, in the case of the women who did come forward, why has no one else ever identified Catherine Fuller as a widow whose husband had been killed at Haun’s Mill, and wondered whether that might shed light on Sister Merrick, another widow who was allegedly an approved wife of Bishop Vinson Knight? Why has no one else mourned the fate of Margaret and Matilda Nyman, daughters of the woman who prompted the revelation on baptism for the dead?

    You react negatively to one woman I have proposed might have been seduced. What of all the other faithful women we do know were seduced? Or are we not to believe the accounts published in the Times and Seasons in May 1844 (not to mention the handwritten testimonies of the women as delivered to the High Council)?

    The only one I can find who has seriously studied that portion of our history is Gary Bergera, and he fundamentally believes that Bennett was doing the same thing Joseph was doing, except without benefit of proper authorization.

    Do we believe that Bennett was only doing that which Joseph taught him to do?

    • Meg, I am not trying to be rude as I realize you feel strongly about your theory, but I am not going to make this comments section a forum for your theory.

      Suffice it to say that I find your theory, as well as any legitimate documentation of such, to be seriously lacking. There is no evidence that any of Joseph Smith’s plural wives were seduced and/or impregnated by John C. Bennett. And I personally find it a slap in the face to honorable women like Eliza R. Snow for such a suggestion.

      I think Brian Hales and other historians who have spent a significant amount of time and effort researching plural marriage would agree that there just isn’t any legitimate documentation to support your theory.

      But again, this is neither the time nor the place to discuss your theory.

    • Even though Craig L. Foster “disagrees with your questionable theories,” any historian who is willing to admit their own biases, has to agree that Meg’s theories are just as plausible as the “accepted” tales advanced by other historians. I for one do not think that there are sufficient facts to be able to just dismiss Meg’s theory whole cloth.

      • Joey:
        The issue isn’t whether or not one can come up with a theory, but whether or not data support the theory. If we ignore historical data we are free to make history feel better in ways that make us feel better. History typically doesn’t go along with the easy theories. Although historians have biases that they frequently admit, the bias toward having evidence to support a hypothesis is a bias for which they do not need to apologize.

        • I look forward to mid-summer, when time will permit me to compose an article where I may present the data to the rigorous standards appropriate to the Interpreter audience.

          You talk of ignoring historical data and having an “easy” theory. I’m not sure you’re referring to me, so I will presume I have no reason to be offended.

          I think Craig makes the case that the current reality where LDS individuals ignore and suppress their history is deleterious to truth, and makes effective apologetics impossible. Ignoring historical data so we can “feel better” ultimately leads the ones we love to feel betrayed when they encounter historical data, particularly given how that historical data is currently couched in almost all venues.

          • The presentation of the data will certainly be important, particularly when historians who have strong control of the documents do not believe that the data you suggest exists. I confess that I get very nervous when I am told that competent historians misunderstand history because they misunderstand historical data. I am even more nervous when it is suggested that competent historians are ignoring and particularly suppressing data. Knowing some of the people working in this field, it would be really shocking had that happened. That is an accusation that should never be made lightly, and really should not be made at all without the presentation of the data to back it up.

            History is revised with every historian who writes. That there are different ideas is part of the reason we keep doing history. Still, when a theory contradicts all known facts, it really must be supported before it is acceptable.

          • Hi Brant,

            I think there is a limit to how many nests this comment string will allow. So this may not appear as a response to your response.

            I don’t think I have suggested that the historians are suppressing data, per se. Rather that they are operating under a paradigm that does not permit them to see certain alternatives that are also supported by the data.

            You keep referring to a theory that contradicts all known facts. That statement is rather sweeping.I’m not sure what part of my alternative interpretation of the facts you refer to.

            As for an alleged accusation that the current historians have suppressed facts, I don’t believe that is what I did. Merely, I indicated that no one had previously noted that Catherine Fuller, the most widely courted and bedded of the women testifying against Bennett, Higbee, and others before the High Council, was almost certainly Catherine Laur Fuller, widow of a man who had been killed at Haun’s Mill. No one suppressed that information, but no one prior to me had noticed that connection, as far as I can discern. Failing to note that connection prevented an understanding of a link to another widow of Haun’s Mill, Sister Merrick. The possibility that Catherine Fuller and Sister Merrick were part of the same circle sheds light on Vinson Knight, a possible reason for Joseph marrying Vinson’s widow after Vinson’s death, and an explanation for why none of the women Vinson wedded or bedded in life deigned to be sealed to him when the Nauvoo temple was available for them to do so. There’s also the matter of Joseph Smith’s statement to William Clayton regarding Vinson. None of which would contradict the kind words Joseph said at Vinson’s funeral – one can imagine King David saying similarly expansive words at a funeral for Absalom, for example.

            All the same facts. Merely seen in a different light.

            My training is in physics and advanced technology. So I am used to paradigm shifts that allow us to fundamentally change the nature of our interaction with nature. It’s not only common in my normal field of endeavor, we positively rely on paradigm shifts to maintain our competitive advantage. And that is in the field of physics where wishful thinking simply won’t ever make a new product “work.”

            History is fundamentally a matter of attempting to fit the extant facts to a working model of what could have happened. I simply have a slightly different working model. The facts are the same.

  8. Interesting and excellent article.
    –Being a descendant (third-great-grandparents) of polygamy, I’ve never worried too much about polygamy in the Church. I haven’t always understood it, but not to the degree of ever questioning my testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith or of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, even though I don’t understand everything about polygamy, nevertheless, I have always resolved that even as it existed (by God’s commandment) in the Bible of the Patriarchs, so has it existed in the Church found in the Latter-Days. This has always been more of a proof of restoration and truthfulness than its opposite for me. For a long time now I have known about Joseph’s polyandrous marriages. I believe that prior to all the nuances of the sealing covenant being ironed out, many women were sealed to the Prophet without physically consummating the sealing. In fact, for awhile until the sealing covenant became better understood, many women were sealed to the Prophet AFTER his martyrdom. Some of these women had current spouses at the time that they were sealed to the Prophet. As I mentioned, the sealing covenant was not fully understood by all members at that time. As with all commandments, guidance and understanding came line-upon-line, precept-upon-precept.

    –Accordingly, I was very surprised to learn that one of my recently married daughters was struggling with the notion and principles of polygamy. Not having intended not to explain the principle to her (the time just hadn’t ever introduced itself for the discussion,) I realized that indeed I hadn’t done well in neglecting to broach the subject. In a similar manner, another daughter expressed difficulty regarding the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Again, having been raised in the immediate vicinity, the issue had never really percolated enough to affect my testimony, so even though I was somewhat educated about both events, I hadn’t bothered to share my understanding with any of my children. Until, that is, they suffered their mini-crisis of faith and I was forced to do so at that time.
    As this article so aptly expresses, it would have been so much better if I would have taken the opportunity as a caring and loving parent (and especially one who had somewhat intimate knowledge regarding both events) to introduce and later explain my understanding of the events from my own perspective. As sloppy as it might have been, it certainly would have been better than what the anti-Mormon’s would do.

    • Thank you Timothy. I hope it was not too late for either daughter as the gospel has so much to offer. You are certainly not alone with your example and hopefully other readers will learn not only from the article but from what you shared with us.

      Thanks again.

      • Thank you, I appreciate your expressions of concern. My daughters are slowly working things out, and I can’t ask for much more than that. Truly we all have to work out our own salvation. I see progress in their everyday decisions regarding the church. I have high hopes in their innate capability to obtain their own testimony and “errand from the Lord.”

        That being said and as an after-note, I happened to read the “Joseph Smith” article found in Wikipedia today. I was amazed at the ability of the Prophet’s detractors who are able to slant the Wikipedia article away from everything good Joseph accomplished and instead leave the taste in one’s mouth that everything he did was somehow inappropriate, insufficient and ultimately devoid of any Heavenly inspiration. The opinions and expressions obviously have to be acceptable to the wardens on both sides of the aisle, both pro and con. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the contra editors had managed to insert their implied doubts and incongruities much more subtly and more successfully than the Prophet’s defenders. Naturally, this bias against the Prophet spilled over even further when the subject of polygamy was introduced. Even with this sour taste in my mouth left over from the Wikipedia editors, I remain convinced that we just don’t have enough information to know exactly what was going through Joseph’s head. Even more important, we really have no idea as to the depths of the intimate conversations which he must have shared with the Lord before commencing down the Polygamous path.
        –The only thing I do know with a surety is that Joseph Smith was and is a Prophet and he did talk to the Lord. If the Lord told him to marry Fanny Alger or a half-a-hundred other women, then who am I to second-guess the Lord? I’ve read Joseph’s words; I’ve read the scriptures he left. I’ve participated in the sealing covenant and felt to shout “Hallelujah” for the promises I received; those which anyone who chooses can receive if they desire them enough. I’ll take the Gospel of Jesus Christ restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith any day over the hecklers who are yelling for my attention from the large and spacious building across the way. The blessings available to each and every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are worth far more than anything the hecklers and detractors could ever provide. And these blessings come restored to us through a modern-day prophet, of this I am sure.

        • Hi Timothy and Craig,

          The challenge we have with Joseph Smith is that many, perhaps even the majority, of the faithful have come to accept that the detractors are telling the truth. After all, the detractors thread their plausible tale through numerous facts that are not discussed in Church. Therefore, it seems to many, the detractors are telling the truth and the Church is hiding a terrible past.

          However, there is another explanation for all the facts. The comment policy of the Interpreter won’t allow me to tell you where you can find that explanation, however. And since my initial explanation of this alternative was prompted by a plan to write a fictional treatment of Nauvoo, my initial posts about this on a different site have left the impression with some casual readers that I’m just making stuff up.

          So I am left with the choice between stopping my series of posts at this alternate site so I can craft an article for Interpreter that meets the Interpreter’s high standards, or I can continue writing the other series until it completes and then write the article(s) for Interpreter.

          I have folks on the other site who actively want to hear what I’m saying, I’ve made the decision that I should finish the series first.

          Just to say that there is a way to take all the facts and find an honorable Joseph. And I hope you will eventually be able to read about it here at Interpreter, but for now that information is at another site that Interpreter policy won’t let me tell you about in a comment.

          • Meg, this comment area is not the place to have free advertising for other websites and posts. That is one of the reasons your original comments were not allowed.

            Furthermore, your comment that your theory was started as a fictional treatment of Nauvoo is a good description. From what I have read, your theory is not only not supported by available evidence, I found it to be extremely offensive as you have besmirched the good reputation of several early Mormon women — one in particular.

            In your attempt to needlessly save the reputation of Joseph Smith, you have potentially added fodder to anti-Mormon arguments.

            I am not alone in disagreeing with your questionable theory as other historians of early LDS polygamy have also expressed concern.

  9. There’s an interesting book coming out from Oxford University Press next month, Paula Kelly Harline’s The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women.

    Having had a chance to read an advanced copy of this book, which touches on 29 relatively obscure diarists and autobiographers who were lived polygamy and remained faithful the the Church, it is clear that “the principle” demanded significant sacrifice from everyone involved, particularly the women.

    I’m not discounting the difficulty faced by a man torn between multiple wives, but you can’t have a heart and think the women got the better end of the stick on this one.

    • Practicing plural marriage was difficult for all parties involved but I agree that the greater sacrifice was on the part of the wives and only those who have practiced plural marriage can truly understand the magnitude of faith these women must have had and the depths of trial and pain many of them experienced.

      • I don’t know that we need to say only practicing polygamists can understand the faith of these women. Some of us are old enough to have suffered a variety of analogous challenges.

        Researching a bit more on those 29 ladies (i.e., looking up their records in Family Search), I’ve decided Mary Ann Weston [Davis Maughan] is my hero. What a great and good woman she was! Ironically, she only gets 4 lines of text in Ms. Harline’s book, because she never gripes about polygamy (indeed, apparently doesn’t really mention the other two ladies who were married to Maughan during her marriage to him). But when you read about her first husband being beaten for the faith (eventually dying of his injuries) and the way she, as a teenaged widow, became mother to Mr. Maughan’s five motherless children, you can see why the simple matter of sharing Mr. Maughan with another widow and a fellow-convert from Gloucester might not be considered newsworthy.

  10. Also, denying or doubting that any plural marriages can exist in the eternities seems, to me, a bad approach akin got putting on blinders. First, are we really to believe that the plural marriages for “time and eternity” or “eternity” of so many in the early days of the Church or of the ancient prophets and patriarchs are invalid? If so, than wouldn’t all of our marriages for “time and eternity” be equally meaningless? The Lord says” “…if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood… and if ye abide in my covenant . . it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world…(D&C 132:19)

    Do we believe the Lord or not?

    • Certainly this is a very difficult principle for both the men and women involved. But the stereotype that it is a man’s doctrine, or that the doctrine is male centric, is not justified by the historic information we have on the attitudes of Joseph Smith and the other brethren who were required to practice it.

  11. Another concern: The assumption that plural marriage was a temporary test for Abraham, or Joseph Smith, or temporary for their time, may be comforting to those who don’t want to worry about its return but Isaiah chapter 4 seems pretty clear on that issue. Several years ago when I listened to the FAIR podcast interview with Valerie Hudson, and in several other treatments of the topic in recent years, Isaiah 4 seems to be deliberately left out of the equation.

  12. Craig L. Foster’s treatment of the issue is right on! Just what needs to happen in my view. The reaction to plural marriage which results in sweeping it under the rug needs to end. A much better approach is that the Church and its members are taught about it early and regularly, in Church classes by qualified teachers as part of second and third hour curriculum. It should be embraced as a part of Church history and nothing to be ashamed of. It was practiced by Bible prophets and patriarchs and righteous kings. It was commanded by God through the Biblical prophet Nathan. The restoration would not have been a full restoration without it and, therefore, plural marriage in the church is a positive. It is evidence that Joseph Smith was really restoring the ancient Biblical practices and that he is on par with the ancient prophets.

  13. The current (May 5, 2014) Wikipedia entry on the subject emphasizes that Church leaders have not discussed any doctrinal implications of polyandrous sealings for the dead:

    “Church doctrine is not entirely specific on the status of men or women who are sealed by proxy to multiple spouses. There are at least two possibilities:

    “Regardless of how many people a man or woman is sealed to by proxy, they will only remain with one of them in the afterlife, and that the remaining spouses, who might still merit the full benefits of exaltation that come from being sealed, would then be given to another person in order to ensure each has an eternal marriage.
    “These sealings create effective plural marriages that will continue after death. There are no church teachings clarifying whether polyandrous relationships can exist in the afterlife, so some church members doubt whether this possibility would apply to women who are sealed by proxy to multiple spouses. The possibility for women to be sealed to multiple men is a recent policy change enacted in 1998.[citation needed] Church leaders have neither explained this change, nor its doctrinal implications. It should be noted, however, that proxy sealings, like proxy baptisms, are merely offered to the person in the afterlife, indicating that the purpose is to allow the woman to choose the right man to be sealed to, as LDS doctrine forbids polyandry.”

    • Speaking as one who is involved in family history and work for the redemption of the dead, I can honestly say that we have heard nothing from General Authorities to give us the idea that polyandry will be practiced in any form in the Celestial Kingdom.

      We, of course, have precedence scripturally and through the spoken words of the prophets to believe that polygyny will be practiced in the Celestial Kingdom but do not have such for polyandry.

      The change in allowing deceased women to be sealed to all known spouses was to ease the dilemma of descendants in trying to decide which husband should be sealed and why. The accepted assumption is that those involved will decide in the hereafter as free will is an eternal principle.

      • There’s an interesting historical situation related to this with the widows of Apostle John Whitaker Taylor. Once he was excommunicated, his sealings to his wives were understood to be null and void. He died of stomach cancer five years after his excommunication.

        John’s widows were aware that Alice Ann Kimball’s first husband (a son of Charles Coulsen Rich) had been excommunicated (bank robbery) and the situation caused Alice Ann to divorce her first husband. Even though her children by Rich had been born in the covenant, when Joseph F. Smith married Alice Ann he had the Rich children sealed to himself. I understand Spencer Kimball, asked about the situation, opined that Joseph F. Smith erred in doing this. Anyway, John’s widows were aware of this, that their children by John could become sealed to any subsequent husband they might marry. Even without the sealing aspect, they were aware that their children could grow to love and prefer a second husband who wasn’t the public symbol of Church disobedience.

        John’s widows were beautiful, powerful women. Every one of the six of them had suitors. In the case of my own direct ancestor, the suitor was a banker who could have provided for the destitute family, since none of John’s inheritance was permitted to be shared with his plural wives.

        However all the widows refused to remarry. Samuel Taylor romantically opined that no other man could compare with the dashing, incomparable John. But I think the widows were also concerned that their children might not realize their complete devotion to John Taylor, and might seal them to some other man. So John’s widows accepted grinding poverty for the remaining decades of their lives rather than allow their descendants any opportunity to think they might choose someone other than John.

  14. Hi Craig,

    I see polyandry as the biggest problem. Even if you are able to convince people that Joseph married other men’s wives for eternity only (no earthly sex), this still leaves the even more atrocious idea that Joseph Smith was stealing women away in the eternities from the husbands they loved, with whom they lived and bore children, and adding them to his Celestial harem. Much like the parable the prophet Nathan gave to David, about the rich man with many flocks, who stole the poor man’s only land to give to a hungry traveler.

    But there is an easy solution to this paradigm. What if God allows these women to keep the husbands they loved for eternity, as well as being married to Joseph Smith in heaven? In this paradigm, both women and men have more than one husband eternally. It would be a sort of sexual law of consecration among more extensive marriage groups.

    This explanation has the advantage of eliminating the patriarchal element of polygamy, which is often the primary objection: it is unfair to women. In eternal polyandry, men and women are equal. I think this theory has some potential. I’ve already used it to great effect among non-Members, who, when it is explained this way, stop seeing Joseph Smith as a patriarchal, creepy Warren Jeffs type, and instead as an egalitarian, an admirable sexual revolutionary.

    So my question to you is: is there any evidence at all, that any of these polyandry women had any understanding that perhaps they would get to stay with their earthly husbands in the next life, in addition to Joseph Smith? Are there any polyandrous sealings? If so, jackpot! Proof of the sexual Law of Consecration!

    This theory might not help most members, who are more puritanical in their sexual views, and would just see that as a celestial orgy. But it might help younger more educated Mormons who are leaving the church.

    • Hi Nate,

      I guess I can see why you think this poly-every-which-way kind of arrangement is attractive. I don’t agree with you, but then again, I do see early Church practice in this as supporting the idea that a woman gets to choose. So if her husband married her and kept her pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen against her will, she gets to dump the guy in eternity if that’s what she chooses to do.

      As for Joseph’s alleged polyandry:

      Several women Joseph married had prior husbands. It seems Joseph married them as an eternal levirate husband, to establish the primacy of the first husband, all other things being equal. This occurred with Agnes Coolbrith [Smith], and may have occurred with Mary Ann Frost [Stearns Pratt], Sarah Scott [Mulholland Mullinder Kimball]. The case of Mary Ann Frost is most suggestive, since Joseph cancelled the sealing Hyrum had performed between Mary Ann and her second husband, Parley P. Pratt.

      There were women Joseph maintained were to be his wives in order to establish Celestial marriage. Some were single, like Lucy Walker. Others had married while Joseph hesitated, then agreed to be sealed to Joseph while remaining with their legal husbands, like Zina Huntington [Jacobs Smith Young]. There are two instances where Joseph allowed an actual or intended plural wife to marry another man (Sarah Whitney [Smith Kingsbury Kimball] and Elvira Annie Cowles [Holmes Smith]). I am not aware of any of these cases where the women expected to be with multiple husbands in eternity. That said, I think at least Elvira Annie Cowles was inclined to hope that Joseph would allow her to be with her legal husband, Jonathan, in eternity. On her deathbed Elvira comforted Jonathan, who expected she would forever be Joseph’s once she died, suggesting that Joseph would do all that was right.

      Several alleged polyandrous marriages are less certain than portrayed by folks like Compton and George D. Smith. In particular, I question whether Sarah [Cleveland] and Elizabeth [Durfee] were ever sealed to Joseph in mortality. You already know that I disagree with those suggesting Joseph was involved with Mary Heron [Snider].

      The Old Testament marriage practices clearly served as a foundation for Joseph’s intended implementation of plural marriage, despite how messy his own marital situations ended up being. The Old Testament marriage laws attributed a woman’s children to her first husband, and the property of the first husband to the man who stepped up and supported the woman and her children (Tamar, Ruth, the law expressed in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). We see this same marriage practice evident with the Queen of the Lamanites, indicating that this law was also practiced amongst Book of Mormon peoples.

      So while it may make Joseph Smith’s marriage practices seem all avant garde and polyamorous to postulate that individuals could be sealed to all their earthly spouses, I don’t believe there is anything in the scriptural or historical record that supports your hope.

      As for me, I’m plenty happy to deal with only one man in eternity, thank you very much.

    • Hi Nate:

      I do not think any of the women nor Joseph Smith and other church leaders would have anticipated polyandry in the full sense existing in the Celestial Kingdom. That concept would not only have been foreign to them, it probably would have been rather unsettling.

      The LDS Church today allows proxy sealings to all known husbands a woman had while in mortality. The idea, however, is that on the other side and with a greater understanding of what is best, the woman will choose one husband. There will not be, as far as I understand, polyandry in the Celestial Kingdom.

    • Yes to what Craig says.

      Early leaders in the Church condemned polyandry. Brigham Young stated in 1852: “What do you think of a woman having more husbands than one? This is not known to the law.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:361, August 1, 1852.)

      On October 8, 1869, Apostle George A. Smith taught that “a plurality of husbands is wrong.” (George Albert Smith, Journal of Discourses, 13:41, October 8, 1869. )

      Six years later Orson Pratt instructed:”God has strictly forbidden, in this Bible, plurality of husbands, and proclaimed against it in his law.” (Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, 18:55-56, July 11, 1875.)

      Pratt further explained:

      “Can a woman have more than one husband at the same time? No: Such a principle was never sanctioned by scripture. The object of marriage is to multiply the species, according to the command of God. A woman with one husband can fulfill this command, with greater facilities, than if she had a plurality; indeed, this would, in all probability, frustrate the great design of marriage, and prevent her from raising up a family. As a plurality of husbands, would not facilitate the increase of posterity, such a principle never was tolerated in scripture. (Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer, 1:4 (April 1853) 60.)

      Bathsheba Smith, wife of Apostle George A. Smith, was asked in 1892 if it would “be a violation of the laws of the church for one woman to have two husbands living at the same time…” She replied: “I think it would.” (Bathsheba Smith, Testimony given in the Temple Lot Case, part 3, page 347, question 1142.)

      Importantly, all of these individuals were involved with Nauvoo polygamy and several were undoubtedly aware of Joseph Smith’s “eternal” sealings to legally married women. Hyrum Smith’s son, Joseph F. Smith, wrote in 1889: “Polyandry is wrong, physiologically, morally, and from a scriptural point of order. It is nowhere sanctioned in the Bible, nor by the law of God or nature and has not affinity with ‘Mormon’ plural marriage.” (Joseph F. Smith to Zenos H. Gurley, June 19, 1889, CA. Richard E. Turley, Jr. Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Provo, Utah: BYU Press, vol. 1, DVD #29.)

      Charles W. Penrose wrote in the Utah Church’s publication, the Millennial Star, in 1867: “Polyandry is contrary to nature, that it strikes at the foundation of the object of marriage – the propagation of the race, that, if it be productive of any increase whatever, the paternal identity is destroyed, or made so doubtful, as to annihilate those natural sympathies which properly should exist between the father and his offspring.” (Charles W. Penrose, “Why We Practice Plural Marriage,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, N. 37 (September 14, 1867) XXIX, 578. [577-80])

      All of these people clearly state that polyandry is strictly forbidden in the church and wholly against the commandments of God. Yet these people would have likely known about Joseph Smith’s eternal sealings to women who had living husbands. They clearly did not view these marriages as concurrent or as polyandrous marriages. I think the historic record indicates that they understood these marriages to be for “time” only to one husband and for “eternity only” to Joseph with no concurrent conjugal privileges allowed.

  15. While modern Mormons of the mainstream church have forsaken plural marriage, we have never forsaken the fundamental concepts Joseph Smith taught – that marriage can endure into eternity.

    Projecting our mortal marriage relationships into eternity will result in some interesting marriage arrangements. I honor the sacrifices my early forebears made to ensure we knew it was right to embrace all our ancestors, not just those who were “first wives.”

    • Thank you Meg. Your comments are clear and well founded. I, also believe that your understanding of the role plural marriage played in our (the Latter-Day) day is spot on. I’m always comforted (a needful thing for us all) when someone expresses themselves and in doing so reflects my very thoughts/feelings. I actually love this topic and believe it is an essential part of the restoration. Rather than shy away from this critical topic, we should embrace it, understand it and teach it (by the Spirit).

  16. I recall learning about Joseph Smith’s plural marriages in the context of my seminary church history class discussion of the plural marriage aspects of D&C 132 and the role it had in leading to the apostacy of the people who printed the Nauvoo Expositor, which in turn led to Joseph and Hyrum being taken to Carthage where they were assassinated. The identity of Eliza R. Snow as a plural widow of Joseph and her marriage to Brigham Young was an essential part oif her biography. The role of plural marriage in affecting Emma Smith’s decision to not leave Nauvoo was also part of this basic history. The story of the “Abrahamic test” of Heber and Vilate Kimball was also part of the Nauvoo period history, along with a quote from Brigham Young describing how he envied a corpse at a funeral when first taught the he should enter into plural marriage.

    As I attended Institute classes at the University of Utah, I took additional courses in LDS history that included the Federal persecutions and the Manifesto that enabled Congress to give Utah statehood. There was review of the Smoot hearings in the US Senate, the excommunication of apostles for performing new plural marriages, and the continuation of living in polygamous unions for Heber J. Grant, who opened the Japan mission in 1901, and led the Church until the end of World War II. One of his visionary experiences was based on his mother being sealed for eternity to Joseph Smith, as a reason wy he was called at a young age to serve as a stake president and then an apostle.

    Plural marriage is intertwined into the why’s and wherefores of LDS history, through its most significant events and most important people. It needs to be understood in order to understand that history. It was part of the package I learned in Seminary and Institute, and in the detailed historical reading I did on my own. Later on, as I spent most of a year researching in the Church Archives for an article I published in the Utah Law Review, polygamy was part of the background of the 19th Century Church. I learned the basics as a Seminary and Institute student in the 1960s and 1970s, and heard more about it during tours of the Beehive House and Lion House. (Our guides were quite frank about the polygamous nature of the household and the industrial scale of food preparation that entailed).

    I am frankly amazed that anyone who grew up in the Church in Utah or Idaho could be.ignorant of these facts, with all the friends and neighbrs around with polygamous ancestors, but I guess it is possible they weren’t paying attention, and if they didn’t take Institute classes while in college, or did.not go to college, and did not bother learning more on their, then I can barely see how they might be ignorant now. But I learned all these basic facts as a Baby Boomer, through official Church education programs. People whose ignorance persisted into their 30s, 40s, and 50s cannot blame the Church, but only their own lack of self education through available channels. The fact that some of their Sunday School teachers or even Seminary teachers were ignorant is not the fault of the Church. I taught Seminary as a calling in Omaha in 1984-88, and another instructor in our stake was Colin Mangrum, law professor at Creighton and coauthor with Ed Firmage of Zion in the Courts, a legal history of the Church in the 19th Century.

  17. As a descendant of erring apostle John Whitaker Taylor, I would assert that merely having apostles continuing to practice plural marriage doesn’t mean the Church itself was lying about putting an end to the practice of plural marriage.

    Going back to Joseph, I find it fascinating that two of Joseph’s plural wives (Agnes Coolbrith Smith and Mary Elizabeth Rollings Lightner) hinted that there were things Joseph F. Smith knew nothing about, things they could tell him. Alas, they don’t appear to have ever communicated their secrets to him, and he doesn’t appear to have asked.

    We live in a great age when so many original documents from Joseph’s era are being made available. I look forward to the talented minds of Mormonism plumbing those documents to find the secrets Agnes and Mary Elizabeth knew.

    I assert Joseph’s mission was to fulfill Malachi’s promise of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. Given the strict monogamy in place when Joseph was attempting to restore this, however, I think God required a brief reinstatement of the practice of plural marriage to effect the salvation of all mankind Mormons believe to be associated with Malachi’s promise. As for why plural marriage in Joseph’s time was so fraught, I suggest there are reasons that had nothing to do with Joseph Smith’s sexual desires.

    Regarding why we allow all males (not just general authorities) to be sealed to all their wives or procreative partners, the point is to tie the entirety of mankind together. No woman and no child should be remain cut off merely because we prefer to insist on strict monogamy.

  18. One other nitpick. You’ve proposed the LDS divorce from polygamy (which I appreciate), but failed to mention the current practice (especially among General Authorities) of being “sealed for eternity” to more than one wife.

    “What is the doctrine?” Nobody knows…

    • Hi Mark:

      I actually was saying that we cannot divorce ourselves from our polygamous heritage and, therefore, should embrace the fact that we have that heritage, be proud of the sacrifices made by our ancestors and accept that we have modern prophets who teach and guide us by revelation. God has commanded us through these prophets to no longer practice plural marriage but that does not mean that we should feel uncomfortable or ashamed of our early ancestors, leaders and church members who did what God commanded at that time and practiced this difficult principle at great personal sacrifice.

  19. Interesting essay, but you do not say what the doctrine IS. Until that is clarified, we can teach the history all we want to children, youth, and adults, but that will solve no problems–instead, it will create them. The doctrine must be clarified first, and this essay does not provide that information.

    • Exactly my thoughts. Discussing this topic more openly would be helpful, but how to resolve all those concerns by faithful members about the eternal nature of polygamy? Several of our current apostles are sealed to more than one woman since their first wife died earlier, and presumably they plan to be married to both in heaven, so we have a de facto current doctrinal belief in eternal polygamy.

      • The real question comes down to the title–whether we’re separated and getting divorced, or separated and getting back together?

        • Hi Anita:
          My argument is that we can never divorce ourselves from our polygamous history. We are separated from it because we no longer practice it, but we cannot divorce ourselves from it.

          Therefore, we need to come to terms with it, try to understand it so we do not have our testimonies hurt by information such as Joseph Smith having plural wives. Joseph Smith was a true prophet and was inspired to introduce plural marriage even as later prophets were inspired to cease practicing it.

    • The doctrine is what is found in Doctrine and Covenants 132 and what the modern prophets teach. We have Doctrine and Covenants and we have Thomas S. Monson who, as the prophet, seer and revelator, will teach what God wants the members of the church to do here and now.

  20. Craig,

    I enjoyed your article. The first 3/4 had an apologetic tone, but never advanced any apologetics. I appreciated the neutrality.

    I wish everyone in the church would read this so we could just get past it all. But I am nervous about mainstreaming these ideas. The FLDS also inoculate their children to certain ideas that most would consider unhealthy.

    One question, I recall VanWagoner’s book being emotionally detached (unlike Compton and others). Where has he “built upon some of this sensational and inaccurate stereotyping” (footnote 8)?



    • Hi Mark,

      Thank you for your comments. Regarding Richard Van Wagoner’s book, Mormon Polygamy: A History, in general I like the book and feel that it has a lot of good information. The reason it is included in the list is because there are parts where Van Wagoner seems to dwell on the sensationalistic, especially when casting a negative image of Joseph Smith where the sources, including some he even listed, paint a different picture. Page 4-5 of Van Wagoner’s book is an example of such.

      Gregory L. Smith’s FAIR Conference address, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask),” gives some more detailed examples of this. I used Greg as a source for some of my comments and so heartily refer you to his talk.

      Thanks again.

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