August 20, 2008

Plural Marriage as Discussed in the Church Today

Plural marriage is an inescapable aspect of LDS history.1 It has been approached in polemic literature by both religious and secular critics; religionists usually decrying the practice as an immoral and depraved teaching resulting from a false prophet, the more secular crowd emphasizing the seeming dishonesty and lustful motives behind the practice. Especially given the recent news exposure to the FLDS practice of polygamy with the Warren Jeffs trial and the invasion of the YFZ Ranch in Texas, the LDS Church has used its publicity arm to affirm it no longer practices plural marriage.2

About four months ago the LDS Public Affairs channel on YouTube posted three videos declaring the Church no longer practices polygamy and is not associated with the FLDS church or other polygamy groups. On June 26 the LDS newsroom published a package of information and videos for media to use to clarify the Church's role and polygamy today. Included were videos of "Texas Mormons," to differentiate them from the polygamists seen on television with floor and wrist-length dresses and dusty ranch streets. On July 10 another statement declared the name "Mormon" shouldn't be applied to the FLDS. Most recently a new website was launched,, with quick answers to questions on polygamy. The approach seems to be more with disassociating the Church from current polygamy rather than clarifying polygamy's role in the LDS past. Thus, Joseph Smith is not expressly mentioned as having practiced plural marriage, though it is implied. For example, one press release says:

As an illustration of the lack of proportion in this situation, in a 9 July article by the AP, one scholar who objected to the Church’s efforts to define itself said that Joseph Smith, were he alive today, would be excommunicated by the Church because he practiced polygamy. Hypothetical conjectures of this sort never work in serious discussions.
Another approaches it, but does not explicitly state "Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage."
The practice began during the lifetime of Joseph Smith...In 1831, [Smith] made a prayerful inquiry about the ancient Old Testament practice of plural marriage. This resulted in the divine instruction to reinstitute the practice as a religious principle.

The common pieces of each statement, video or press release includes mention that the LDS Church discontinued the practice in 1890, that it differed in many ways from current groups, that current Mormons are excommunicated if trying to practice, and that there are over 12 million Mormons around the world not practicing polygamy compared to the small splinter groups who are.

Frankly, I believe the new website and press releases fail in one major aspect: they fail to fully address plural marriage in LDS history. In a recent USA Today article, Kathleen Flake, an associate professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, said "The biggest challenge facing the LDS church is not distinguishing their present from the fundamentalist present, but getting people to understand the difference between their past and the current practice of the fundamentalist groups. This initiative, I believe, is their first attempt to do that."

In order to truly differentiate the past from present, the past must be better clarified. One, uniform, complete historical study and publication on plural marriage in the Church would greatly benefit all, not only alleviating confusion among non-Mormons, but also helping Latter-day Saints better understand the past practice of plural marriage in their religious heritage.3 This brings me to the immediate purpose of today's post; examining plural marriage as discussed in official or quasi-official Church publications. LDS can be encouraged by recent efforts at academic works on LDS history, including the recent Mountain Meadows Massacre book and the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers Project.

First, I am not aware of one contemporary official LDS publication academically dedicated to plural marriage. At least three quasi-official publications have been available through Deseret Book, however. These tend to discuss plural marriage with much more detail than any official publication. In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton and Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery are two such examples, though they are no longer carried by Deseret Book. The third, Richard Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, is not a dedicated study of plural marriage, but a biography of Joseph Smith which explicitly deals with his instituting and practicing plural marriage.

Another recent book discussing plural marriage is The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle by Kathleen Flake. It explores the "Mormon compromise" wherein the Church disavowed polygamy in the early 20th century. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles lauded the book as the "best thing ever written" on the subject of the transition between the pre and post polygamy Church:
"I have to say I’ve been a lifetime student and writer of Mormon legal history, at least. I learned many, many things in her book that I didn’t know. She captured it very, very well, and was able to stress also what remained unimpaired by the compromise Other books have been published, but not in a way that would grab the awareness of the average Mormon."4 
To my knowledge, the book is not sold at Deseret Book or on their website. One current mainstream LDS example of a work devoted strictly to polygamy is Setting the Record Straight: Mormons and Polygamy by Jessie L. Embry. It is a brief look into plural marriage including historical data on the practice, and that Joseph Smith initiated it. I do not know if the book covers polyandry.5 Last, Gerald Lund's extremely popular fictionalized history on the history of the Church The Work and the Glory discusses Joseph Smith and plural marriage. As the cover synopsis of volume 6 says:
...whisperings reach the ears of some of the Steeds about curious teachings and practices going on in Nauvoo — specifically it is rumored that God may have restored the ancient practice of plural marriage. How will they respond when they find out that at least some of the rumors are true? The issue becomes a trial of faith that shakes the Steed family to its very roots.

As pertaining to official LDS publications that state Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage, I have compiled a brief list of several sources. The LDS Church has not "removed all information about plural marriage from all its manuals," yet some members remain unaware that Joseph had more than one wife. Perhaps the earliest published mention of plural marriage was in the Book of Mormon:
Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts...For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things (Jacob 2:27-30).
This clearly did not "rule out" plural marriage; rather, it taught that it could happen only and if God commanded. The current Book of Mormon Sunday School manual discusses polygamy in the Additional Teaching Ideas" section for the lesson on Jacob 1-4.
1. Jacob condemns the unauthorized practice of plural marriage...The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 324). Explain that the Lord gave such direction (see D&C 132), but He later withdrew His sanction of plural marriage when conditions changed (see Official Declaration 1). Emphasize that the law of the Lord regarding marriage today is the same as it was in Jacob’s day.6
Mike Parker from FAIR described the origins of plural marriage in a FAIR blog post, noting the next example of published statements regarding polygamy:
There were rumors circulating as early as 1835 that the Mormons were advocating polygamy, which prompted Oliver to write up an Article on Marriage and submit it for a sustaining vote by the general assembly of the church in Kirtland on 17 August 1835. Joseph was preaching in Michigan at the time. The article became Section 101 of the 1835 (first) edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. It affirms in verse 4: “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”
At least since 1852 the Church has publicly stated and printed that Joseph Smith instituted and practiced plural marriage. The article on marriage by Cowdery remained in the D&C until the 1876 edition when it was replaced by Section 132. This section states that other wives had been "given" to Joseph Smith:
And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God (see D&C 132:52).7
Furthermore, the current D&C heading directs readers to the fifth volume of the History of the Church where plural marriage is clearly discussed (see HC 5: 501–507). B.H. Roberts also explicitly discussed plural marriage and Joseph Smith in his Comprehensive History of the Church, which was originally published between 1909 and 1915 in the periodical Americana as The History of The Mormon Church, published in 6 volumes in 1930. It remains an important LDS historical work.

The current CES manual for D&C clearly states Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage. For example, it quotes Wilford Woodruff as follows:
"I bear record before God, angels and men that Joseph Smith received that revelation, and I bear record that Emma Smith gave her husband in marriage to several women while he was living, some of whom are to-day living in this city, and some may be present in this congregation, and who, if called upon, would confirm my words" (In Journal of Discourses, 23:131).8
The current CES manual Church History In the Fulness of Times also states that JS practiced plural marriage, naming at least one of the wives, and noting the difficulty in tracking them all due to the records available:
Moreover, Joseph Smith and the Church were to accept the principle of plural marriage as part of the restoration of all things (see v. 45). Accustomed to conventional marriage patterns, the Prophet was at first understandably reluctant to engage in this new practice. Due to a lack of historical documentation, we do not know what his early attempts were to comply with the commandment in Ohio. His first recorded plural marriage in Nauvoo was to Louisa Beaman; it was performed by Bishop Joseph B. Noble on 5 April 1841.12 During the next three years Joseph took additional plural wives in accordance with the Lord’s commands.9
In the official Sunday School D&C manual used in virtually every ward and branch in the Church, we read:
In this dispensation, the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and those closest to him, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, were challenged by this command, but they obeyed it. Church leaders regulated the practice.10
On, the "search" feature yields the "Gospel Topics" section as the first result for the term "polygamy." It also explains that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage:
After God revealed the doctrine of plural marriage to Joseph Smith in 1831 and commanded him to live it, the Prophet, over a period of years, cautiously taught the doctrine to some close associates. Eventually, he and a small number of Church leaders entered into plural marriages in the early years of the Church (see, Gospel Topics, "Polygamy").
Thus far we have seen a rather nondescript mentioning of plural marriage, but it is included in many official Church publications. The current Priesthood/Relief Society manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith includes a statement in the introduction hinting at one reason for the limited plural marriage material: the manual is designed for contemporary Latter-day Saints. Official curriculum states as its primary mission the teaching of principles that are relevant to the lives of its modern membership. The Joseph Smith manual explains:
This book deals with teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that have application to our day....This book also does not discuss plural marriage. The doctrines and principles relating to plural marriage were revealed to Joseph Smith as early as 1831. The Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime...The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices plural marriage.11
This is a different approach than was used in the earlier Brigham Young volume of the series, which excised the word "wives" for "wife" in a chapter in which Brigham is discussing wives in general, not his own plural wives. Standard procedure was followed, editors employed brackets to identify the change. Nevertheless, other than mentioning his first wife who passed away and his second wife, the book does not discuss plural marriages. This caused some outcry and publicity about the Church trying to hide something about the past. The next book in the series, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, contained a disclaimer:
This book is not a history, but rather a compilation of gospel principles as taught by President Joseph F. Smith. However, in order to put the teachings in a historical framework, the following list is provided to summarize some of the milestones in his life that have most immediate relationship to his teachings. This summary omits some important events in his personal life, including his marriages (plural marriage was being practiced in the Church at that time) and the births and deaths of his children, to whom he was devoted.12
The John Taylor edition of Teachings of the Presidents of the Church talks briefly about struggles over the legality of plural marriage. The timeline offers the following:
1882- United States Congress passes the Edmunds bill, making plural marriage a felony and prohibiting polygamists from voting, holding public office, or performing jury duty.

1885- Receives word during a visit to California that federal officials have ordered his arrest for practicing polygamy.13
The Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual on Wilford Woodruff contains the most information on plural marriage of the series. Woodruff issued the "manifesto" declaring an end to the practice, which is treated in his historical timeline.14 The historical overview chapter, “The Life and Ministry of Wilford Woodruff,” contains this description under the heading "Issuing the Manifesto":

Strengthened by the Lord’s guiding hand, President Woodruff led the Latter-day Saints through one of the most turbulent times in this dispensation. In the late 1880s the Church continued to practice plural marriage in obedience to the Lord’s command to the Prophet Joseph Smith. However, the United States government had recently passed laws against the practice, with severe penalties for the violation of those laws, including confiscation of Church property and denial of Church members’ basic civil rights, such as the right to vote. These developments also opened legal channels for the prosecution of Latter-day Saints who were practicing plural marriage. The Church made legal appeals, but to no avail.
These circumstances weighed heavily on President Woodruff. He sought the will of the Lord on the matter and eventually received a revelation that Latter-day Saints should cease the practice of entering into plural marriage. Obeying the Lord’s command, he issued what came to be known as the Manifesto—an inspired statement that remains the basis of the Church’s stance on the subject of plural marriage. In this public declaration, dated September 24, 1890, he stated his intention to submit to the laws of the land. He also testified that the Church had ceased teaching the practice of plural marriage. On October 6, 1890, in a session of general conference, the Latter-day Saints sustained their prophet’s declaration, unanimously supporting a statement that he was “fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the Manifesto.”15

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism published in the early 90s has a full entry on plural marriage in addition to other references in various biographical entries. The plural marriage entry says, among other things,
Joseph Smith told Brigham Young that he was determined to press ahead though it would cost him his life, for 'it is the work of God, and He has revealed this principle, and it is not my business to control or dictate it' (Brigham Young Discourse, Oct. 8, 1866, Church Archives).16
Finally, BYU Studies has been publishing articles about plural marriage for decades, as have other non-official LDS publications such as Dialogue and Sunstone, the Journal of Mormon History, Utah Historical Quarterly, etc. The bibliographic essay by Bradley noted above notes many good articles from these publications. Further research is needed to see the extent of the articles dealing with plural marriage.

From these examples it would seem to be surprising that someone who regularly attended Church or Institute or who has read the Doctrine and Covenants, would be unfamiliar with Joseph Smith practicing plural marriage. Still, there are examples of Church books which state that plural marriage was instituted in the Church though not explicitly mentioning, but only implying, that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage, and plural marriage does not play a large role in current LDS teachings. Currently the Church is seeking to distance itself from the practice in contemporary thought.

For example, see the topic as discussed in the book Our Heritage:
The Prophet prayed for understanding and learned that at certain times, for specific purposes, following divinely given laws, plural marriage was approved and directed by God. Joseph Smith also learned that with divine approval, some Latter-day Saints would soon be chosen by priesthood authority to marry more than one wife. A number of Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage in Nauvoo, but a public announcement of this doctrine and practice was not made until the August 1852 general conference in Salt Lake City.17
The small book True to the Faith does not mention polygamy, but rather presents a simple account of LDS teachings and how they apply to members today.18 Likewise with the Gospel Principles manual.19 The new missionary manual Preach My Gospel only mentions plural marriage once, in the section titled "Use the Book of Mormon to Respond to Objections":
Many people will not believe everything you teach. President Ezra Taft Benson taught how the Book of Mormon can be the central resource in handling objections to the Church: "...All objections, whether they be on abortion, plural marriage, seventh-day worship, etc., basically hinge on whether Joseph Smith and his successors were and are prophets of God receiving divine revelation..."20
Also, in the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Student Guide it briefly says:
Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord commanded the practice of plural marriage in the early days of the Church.21
"The Family: A Proclamation to the World" is silent on the issue of plural marriage. It states that "families [are to] to be united eternally," that "God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife," and that "the family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan."22 Ambiguity remains when it comes to current LDS sealing policies which effect this "eternal marriage." A man may be sealed to more than one women (given that the first wife is deceased, or I believe, civilly divorced from the man) but a woman cannot be sealed to more than one man. Technically, then, if one tales into account post-mortality marriage, polygamy still occurs in the Church in that regard. Whether these marriages will be honored (or remain unamended throughout eternity) the Church has no current official position.   

General conference talks (especially recently) only mention plural marriage in passing, almost invariably in the tone of forbidding or denying the current practice. Three such examples come from President Spencer W. Kimball, President Gordon B. Hinckley, and Elder M. Russell Ballard.

President Kimball's 1974 address stated:
We warn you against the so-called polygamy cults which would lead you astray. Remember the Lord brought an end to this program many decades ago through a prophet who proclaimed the revelation to the world.23
President Gordon B. Hinckley discussed polygamy in his 1998 General Conference address after appearing on CNN's Larry King Live. His talk included some questions King asked, and his answers. In regards to "What is the Church’s position on polygamy?" he said:
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.24
Finally, and most recently, Elder M. Russell Ballard mentioned plural marriage in conference without addressing many historical details:
...simple statements are helpful to someone who is uninformed but curious about the importance we place on the basic unit of the Church and of society. We have a deep commitment to marriage (defined as a union between one man and one woman). Polygamy, a limited practice in the early pioneer days of the Church, was discontinued in 1890, some 117 years ago.25
I feel it is reasonable that plural marriage would not play a large part in contemporary LDS dialog in official meetings and publications further than explaining that it was once practiced in the Church. For one reason, it is pretty far from our current familial norms. Likewise, the Church does not systematically investigate or teach about Old Testament prophets who practiced polygamy. It is mentioned, but it is not a prime focus of any church manual or lesson I have seen; it seems that being relatively discreet on polygamy is not confined to Joseph Smith's participation. The Church is a world-wide organization with converts from many countries. The Church has the position that teaching the first principles and ordinances of the gospel takes precedence over more peripheral matters of historical inquiry such as plural marriage while some critics may counter that polygamy in the past is directly relevant to the truth claims of the Church.

Either way, I would like more explicit and specific Church-released materials dealing with plural marriage. I believe a comprehensive, academic, rigorous, and thorough study on its implementation, practice, and cessation, would do much to clear the air on the Church's standpoint regarding plural marriage. It would give average members, media personnel, Sunday school, seminary, and institute teachers a reference point. I believe we are currently seeing a trend in Church scholarship that seems more willing than the recent past to confront this difficult issue which still flies in the face of our moral sensibilities. Perhaps work on the Joseph Smith Papers project can help get a book in the works.

Finally, I feel that the issue for many disaffected Latter-day Saints has more to do with feeling betrayed or lied to by the Church than with being upset about the actual historical fact that Joseph Smith had more than one wife. As this post demonstrates, the Church has included information on plural marriage in many contemporary official Church publications, but perhaps more can be done. From the sources cited above it becomes clear that at least three main issues could be better examined or explained in official Church publications: Post-Manifesto plural marriage, polyandry, and the prevarication regarding the practice by Joseph Smith and other early LDS leaders.26

This post rose as a response to the following comment from my post on Richard Bushman's seminar introduction last week:
I continue to be amazed when the church's historians and apologist make statements such as, "A surprising number had not known about Joseph Smith’s plural wives." Why would they know? The church has removed the information from all of its materials.
I argue that the Church has not "removed all information" regarding plural marriage and Joseph Smith from its manuals, but that it has clearly not played a prominent role in official LDS literature. It has been discussed much more in 'unofficial' writing. The concern of the commentator does not arise from thin air. Many active members of the Church do not have a full grasp of polygamy, the extent to which it was practiced, how it began, the sacrifices involved, and the reasons participants gave for living "the principle."

See a recent USA Today article, "Mormons launch campaign to put distance between themselves and polygamists," By Eric Gorski, Associated Press, posted 6/26/2008.

Even LDS who are aware of the practice of plural marriage by Joseph Smith still tend to perpetuate errors about the reasons for the practice, including the implication that there were more women than men, or that Mormon widows needed help in crossing the plains. These reasons are largely flawed.

"Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from PBS Documentary," Newsroom, July 20, 2007. Possibly some of the other works that wouldn't grab the attention of the average Mormon, and are not found in most LDS bookstores, include Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage and Doing The Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise, each by B. Carmon Hardy, Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard S. Van Wagoner, and Kathryn Daynes's, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System 1840-1910. George D. Smith of Signature Books published Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" in 2008, which was unfavorably reviewed in a well-documented piece by Greg Smith. See "George D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy," FARMS Review, 20:2, pp. 37-123. Finally, Martha Sonntag Bradley has written a very useful bibliographic essay, "Out of the Closet and Into the Fire: The New Mormon Historians Take on Polygamy," available in Excavating Mormon Pasts: The New Historiography of the Last Half Century, from Kofford Books.

Polyandry involved the sealing of Joseph Smith to women who were already married to living men. It was explored in Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling as well as Emma Smith: Mormon Enigma and Compton's In Sacred Loneliness. Polyandry is also discussed on the FAIR website, which is not officially affiliated with the LDS Church. See Sam Kaitch, "A Tale of Two Marriage Systems: Perspectives on Polyandry and Joseph Smith," and Allen Wyatt's "Zina and Her Men: An Examination of the Changing Marital State of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young," (Mesa, Arizona: FAIR, 2006 FAIR Conference). The Journal of Discourses also contains declarations of Joseph Smith's plural marriage, and even proposals to other married women. It is accessible online and on GospelLink. Other general books discussing plural marriage include James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (1976), and Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience (1979).

Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teachers Manual (1999), "Lesson 12: Seek Ye for the Kingdom of God," p. 51-55.

See Mike Parker, "On the origins of polygamy (or, What did Joseph know, and when did he know it?)," FAIR blog, July 8, 2008, and Robert J. Woodford, "The Story of the Doctrine and Covenants," Ensign, December 1984.

The Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (Religion 324-325), 1981, has references to plural marriage on pp. 327, 333-34, 361-363.

See Church History In the Fulness of Times (Religion 341-343), 1989, pp. 256, 424-425, 440-441.

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, Lesson 31: “Sealed … for Time and for All Eternity," p.176.

See Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City:Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2007), "Introduction," xiii.

Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, (Salt Lake City:Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 1998), “Historical Summary,” viii. A similar but more ambiguous statement was included in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant:
This book is not a history, but rather a compilation of gospel principles as taught by President Heber J. Grant. The following chronology provides a brief historical framework for these teachings. It omits significant events in secular history, such as wars and worldwide economic crises. It also omits many important events in President Grant’s personal life, such as his marriages and the births and deaths of his children," Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, (Salt Lake City:Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2002), "Historical Summary," viii).
See Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: John Taylor, (Salt Lake City:Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2004), "Historical Summary," vii. The next chapter, "The Life and Ministry of John Taylor," provides a little more information on these incidents, though Taylor's wives and number of marriages are not listed.

The time line lists the passing of the Edmunds Act making plural marriage a felony. Two more dates are noted: 24 September 1890, "Having received a revelation from the Lord, issues a declaration stating that the Latter-day Saints should cease the practice of entering into plural marriage"; 6 October 1890, "Members of the Church attending general conference unanimously sustain the revelation President Woodruff received regarding plural marriage," “Historical Summary,Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, (Salt Lake City:Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2004), x.

The Life and Ministry of Wilford Woodruff,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, xv. Post-manifesto plural marriages and the excommunication of apostles who dissented from that decision is not discussed, see footnote 26.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "Plural Marriage," p. 1093.

Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Chapter Eight: A Period of Trials and Testing,” p. 93.

True To the Faith contains a section on marriage, but does not discuss polygamy. It does refer to section 132 of the D&C, however, which does discuss polygamy. See p. 97-101. [.pdf]

Gospel Principles, see especially "Section Eight: Family Salvation."

Preach My Gospel, p. 108. [.pdf] In directing people to the Book of Mormon regarding the issue of plural marriage, one might

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Student Guide, p. 150. The rest of the material deals with marriage as practiced today in the Church.

"The Family: A Proclamation to the World" was read by President Gordon B. Hinckley as part of his message at the General Relief Society Meeting held September 23, 1995.

Spencer W. Kimball, “God Will Not Be Mocked,” Ensign, Nov 1974, 4.

Gordon B. Hinckley, “What Are People Asking about Us?,” Ensign, Nov 1998, 70. This quote has been heavily used in recent press releases.

M. Russell Ballard, “Faith, Family, Facts, and Fruits,” Ensign, Nov 2007, 25–27.

For example, the end of plural marriage is usually presented as "officially" occurring in 1890 with Wilford Woodruff's "Manifesto." Technically, this official end is accurate, as the official Church disclaimed the practice, but historical records indicate that, just as the beginning of plural marriage was slow and roughly documented, so was the cessation. See D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904.” Dialogue 18 (1) Spring 1985: 9-105, and Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1996). Also, further exploration of polyandrous marriages (being sealed to an already-married woman) would be useful. See Andrea G. Radke, Ph.D. "The Place of Mormon Women: Perceptions, Prozac, Polygamy, Priesthood, Patriarchy, and Peace," 2004 FAIR Conference. Joseph Smith and other early LDS leaders' equivocation on accusations of the practice, which played a role in the establishment of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, would also be beneficial from an official LDS Church source. Finally, on all these issues, see Gregory L. Smith, M.D., "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. Greg Smith is currently working on an expansive work regarding plural marriage. For a sample of what he has found so far, see the chapter on polyandry.


Mike Parker said...

Nice overview, LoGP.

I guess the concern I have is that the Church seems to be going overboard to downplay the importance and extent of plural marriage in our early history. Elder Ballard's comment sums up the problem nicely:

"Polygamy, a limited practice in the early pioneer days of the Church, was discontinued in 1890, some 117 years ago."

With all due respect to Elder Ballard, the practice was neither "limited," nor was it "discontinued in 1890."

From 1852 through the early decades of the 20th century, plural marriage defined for Mormons what it meant to be Mormon. It was regularly preached in the second half of the 19th century as the standard to which believing Mormons should strive, the assumed order in the celestial kingdom, and implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) a requirement of exaltation. This is big stuff — things you can't dismiss with a sentence or two with claims about "limited practice."

The impression this gives many people who know better is that the Church is embarrassed about its polygamous past because it causes P.R. and missionary problems today.

I write this as a believing, active Latter-day Saint who frequently defends the gospel against its critics. As a descendant of polygamists myself — one of whom Lorenzo Snow wrote about upon his death, "If any man understood the proper meaning of polygamy, and lived it correctly, it was Mads Christian Jensen" — I would like to see more public praise for these brave men and women, and more public acknowledgment of the importance plural marriage played in the early Church. Teaching our own members about it would be a good start.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Mike. I also feel like we owe our forefathers more than just citing plural marriage as a "limited practice."

Hans said...

I agree and think that some of the confusion comes where we actually still allow a second or third temple marriage when a spouse is deceased. This kind of sends mixed signals in what Pres. Hinckley said in response to Larry King. I could see some feeling betrayed at the conflict there, though it doesn't bother me.

LifeOnaPlate said...

hans, thanks for the comment. I meant to include that policy point in the post, and have added it.

J. Stapley said...

We had the missionaries over for dinner this week. One of them asked me "a question that they had wanted to ask a Church historian for some time." The question? Was Joseph Smith really involved with polygamy? We subsequently had a nice little chat.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Ouch. I was really sad to find out a good friend of mine didn't even know. About 3 people in my Ward didn't know (I've only asked about 6 people, I didn't make it a big mission, I was just curious.) Anyway, at least my good friend had a sense of humor about it. I told him we have good evidence Joseph married one of the Steed daughters from The Work and the Glory.

Hans said...

I think that I am going to do my own unscientific survey this Sunday to see what others think.

I response to my own post earlier, if I recall from what I heard from the Handbook of Instructions (I don't have a copy and won't search online), women can now be sealed to more than one man through the temple. This would equal the playing field and would seem to indicate that it is more a personal choice to whom in the next life.

Can anyone clarify if I remember this correctly?

BTW, I think that I am a descendant of JS and one of the Steed daughters. It is nice to know that my family wasin the church from the very beginning!

Dan Knudsen said...

This issue almost looks like beating a dead horse for someone’s pleasure, since there’s nothing better to do. What actually is there left to say about it--really? That chapter in church history has long since closed; unless it is re-opened sometime in the future, who does it really affect now? Has any other issue received so much attention, and why not? It’s like Congress recently apologizing for slavery, since they had nothing better to do.

The fact that some men have married more than one woman in the temple in our time (but not while the previous wife was alive, except when divorce and sealing cancellation had first taken place), doesn’t prove anything, since nothing counts now except what happens in this life. We don’t know for sure what happens in the Hereafter, and regardless of how much we speculate, or accuse the church of continuing the practice of polygamy, it still is not happening in this life.

My earliest ancestors in the church were baptized in 1831, and the latest in 1852, and there were several polygamists there, but not all of them were, and I’m not sure it was a majority who were practicing it. So, what are the actual figures on how many were polygamists, compared with those who were not? If there were all that many doing it, why were so few caught and put in prison? If everyone was doing it, how could anyone hide from the law?

I know of issues in church history that most members don’t know about but no one cares. Why is this one so different, except that it’s fodder upon which anti-Mormons will forever continue to grind their teeth? Has it become a Gospel Hobby of some kind? What am I missing on this issue?

LifeOnaPlate said...


As pointed out, plural marriage was an important aspect of Mormonism for decades. People sacrificed a lot to live the principle. I don't think we do them any good by throwing it all out, ignoring it, or otherwise sweeping it away. It is a real part of our history. I'm personally thankful I don't have to practice plural marriage. Most people I know feel the same. That said, the best way to once-and-for-all this thing (for a few decades to come, anyway,) is a good full and reliable treatment. The other thing you must keep in mind is that plural marriage can be upsetting to members who had not heard of the practice before hand. It can be an easy "gotcha!" tool for anti-mormons, as you point out, but you seem rather unconcerned about it. I'm not unconcerned because I hate to see issues cloud or destroy testimonies, especially when we can do better to prevent it. We'll never get to the point where we'll satisfy everyone, I realize that. I'm personally not all that interested in plural marriage. The church seems to have been putting out a lot of releases on it lately, though, and I wanted to explore the official sources in the Church. It's not a gospel hobby of mine, but it is something I deal with in my study of the Journal of Discourses and early Mormonism.

Thanks for taking the time to read the post, I know it was a long one!

Bungus said...

Hans - back in the early-mid 90s there was a priesthood bulletin on the subject of women being sealed to more than one man. I have been told the reason for this change was people doing family history found that their g-grandmother out lived 5 (or some number of) husbands and they didn't know who to seal them to - so they can be sealed to all. I have a living aunt that wanted to take advantage of the change. Her first husband (my uncle) was killed in WWII and she married again and was sealed to her second. Her second has passed on and she wants to be sealed to her first now. It was denied and apparently only for women who have died (or are related to GAs). She has a friend in the same boat but there was a connection and her request was granted.

Kent said...

The question related to how we deal with sealings (and what it really means to be sealed to a spouse) is really what drives the discussion today. I spoke a little with Terryl Givens about this and he told me to look for a new book by Kathleen Flake that deals with the topic of sealings.

LifeOnaPlate said...


I believe the current policy on sealing is that a woman may be sealed by proxy to every one of her husbands to whom she had previously been married under the conditions that the woman is dead, and that every husband to whom she had previously been married is dead.

This policy change was made in the mid 1980s, and appeared in the 1991 CHI.

If I hear differently I will update.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Kent- sounds like something to look forward to, I believe.

Anonymous said...

Nowadays, the most troubling aspect of plural marriage, especially for women, are past teachings that plural marriage is essential for exaltation.

I personally agree with BY and JFS that it is, most people I run into in CES say "we dont know" or "no it is not." I think sticking with the BY/JFS explanation helps explain post-manifesto plural marriage and the wording of the Manifesto; ie the Church was giving it up because it had a proverbial gun to it's head.

LifeOnaPlate said...


I agree that is an aspect that can trouble people today. Fortunately, there is the avenue, however, of continuing revelation. For example, in the Old Testament God set up an everlasting covenant, then added more everlasting stuff in the form of the Law of Moses. We understand now that it was imperative for those living at the time to follow in order to maintain the covenant, but many are likely glad that blood sacrifice is done away. In other words, we have precedence of an "eternal" commandment being rescinded or at the least, changed.

Second, we have the avenue of the fallibility of prophets. They do what they can with the light they have. We have instances of Brigham Young and others teaching that a man need not have more than one wife to be exalted, plain and simple. We have a sermon wherein Young emphasizes the obedience over the action, setting it as primary instead of actual plural marriage. It became, then, an issue of faith. They communicated the commandment in their own imperfect ways.

Third, we have scriptures assuring us that we will be given according to the desires of our hearts. If eternity in plural marriage would be hell for someone, there are degrees of glory wherein such a person will enjoy themselves to the highest possible extent without overriding their desires.

So there are a lot of ways to look at it.

Anonymous said...

I prefer the avenue of contiuing revelation. I have at least two reason to belive my interpretation is wrong:

"Celestial marriage--that is, marriage for time and eternity--and polygamous or plural marriage are not synonomous terms. Monogamous marriages for time and eternity, solemnized in our temples in accordance with the word of the Lord and the laws of the Church, are Celestial marriages."

Heber J. Grant
Anthony W. Ivins,
J. Reuben Clark, Jr.

James R. Clark, Messages Of The First Presidency, 5:329.

Question 4: Is plural or celestial marriage essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come?

Answer: Celestial marriage is essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come, as explained in the revelation concerning it; but it is not stated that plural marriage is thus essential. . . .

These questions are answered, so that it may not be truthfully claimed that we avoid them. . . .

Charles W. Penrose,
Of the First Presidency."

(Improvement Era, vol. 15, no. 11, September 1912, 1042)

I accept HJG to be just as prophetic as BY; heck, he learned the gospel from BY, JT, WW, LS and JFS personally and was a polygamist himself.

This being the newest teaching I accept it as the most complete.
Therefore,whatever was tought to the saints about the neccesity of plural marriage certainly counts for the people that heard it.

As for us, that is a very open matter. I think it is two open for anyone but our living prophet to teach authoritativly.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks for the quotes, anonymous.

Don Kauffman said...

Maybe it comes from having polygamous ancestors and being the son of a seminar teacher, but I remember being very aware of, and comfortable with, our polygamous history.

As time has gone on, I find myself a bit less comfortable.

Maybe it's because my wife is concerned that if I were to die, and she remarried, she couldn't be sealed to her new husband, but I could in the reverse situation.

Maybe it because comments like Mitt Romney's "I cannot imagine anything more awful than polygamy," are becoming more common.

I think members of the church look at the vestigages of the practice in Southern Utah and Texas and are left to say "What were they thinking, when they started this!?!"

Like you are suggesting, maybe if we better understood the practice among the righteous, we would (hopefully) recognize the differences, and realize why it was allowed/instituted in the first place.

For example. I read once that divorce was rather common in polygamous marriages. While divorce is not something we would ever encourage, that fact dispells the idea that women were imprisoned in polygamous marriages, and adds weight to the idea that they were doing what they thought was right and what made them happy.

LifeOnaPlate said...

That is an interesting example, namely, that Brigham Young was very liberal in regards to divorces, though they weren't necessarily encouraged. How many members know that about Church history?

Anonymous said...

While I certainly hope they don't stop there, I don't consider the recent attempts of the Church (PR) to correct misperceptions of polygamy and the church (past or present) as "distancing" themselves. I rather was happy to be hearing them be no bones about it. I don't think anyone, member or everybody else out there in the world, is served by, or understanding of polygamy advanced, by a conflation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with any other polygamous groups. I would say that that is element number one of understanding LDS polygamy past and future . . . that you DON'T put it in any category close whatsoever with other polygamous groups. That's my opinion.

Again, I hope they don't stop there. I have my own understandings of all of this, the polygamy itself as well as the conversation and teaching the church has and hasn't had about it over the years, but won't take the time the lay it out; maybe another time. I loved what you presented here, Blair.


Bull said...

Thanks for the post. As promised, I read it. I'm somewhat satisfied that your informal survey shows that I wasn't the only one who didn't know of any of Joseph Smith's plural marriages.

During my mission a member specifically asked me if it was true that Joseph Smith had married 23 wives. My answer mirrored the information you posted. I replied that I didn't know of any, but that he received the revelation and instituted the practice so it stands to reason that he had more than one wife. The number was really immaterial. That was pretty much all the more I knew and based on what you post is about all the church usually teaches on the topic during church meetings.

As an apostate, I'll give you some insight on how this affected me.

During my mission I was reading the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt. I was disturbed by the fact that despite all of the detail almost nothing was said about his plural marriages. It was clear that he was a polygamist, but it warranted very little text. It troubled me because I realized how little I knew about the topic and it made me think that it seemed like the church was embarrassed by it. This seemed doubly strange because it was commanded by God and the men and women living it were doing so out of obedience to a higher law despite their discomfort at it. However, I didn't have any problem with the doctrine itself.

20 years later as I found myself questioning my faith I plunged into the church's history. I found details about polygamy that to me are deal breakers. I understand that they aren't to many faithful members. But to me they were. For me, the reason for the church's silence seemed obvious; they couldn't openly discuss the details because those details would likely affect many (some?) members in the same way they affected me.

My perception is that the church restricts its mainstream historical teaching to "faith promoting" topics. Again, my opinion only, this is a dishonest whitewashing of history. I respect others' right to feel otherwise.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Bull. As I mentioned, I think a complete (as far as is possible) academic treatment on plural marriage (similar to new MMM book) would be excellent. Perhaps the new Church historians press would be able to do such a vast project.

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