LDS Restorationist movement, including the Mormon Churches
Polygyny during the early 19th century
The media generally refer to plural marriages among the LDS Restorationist
Movement as "polygamy."
However, the practice has almost exclusively been limited to polygyny: the marriage of
one man and two or more women. Polyandry was rarely involved. Thus, polygyny is the more precise term to use here.
Misunderstandings about Mormon polygyny:
There are a number of apparently mistaken beliefs concerning polygyny
that are commonly held by contemporary members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, (a.k.a. the LDS church) about their church's past policies on
Many present-day Mormons believe that Joseph Smith was married to only one wife,
Emma. In fact, he married 33 or more women. 1,2
Many Mormons believe that his second and
subsequent wives were sealed to Joseph Smith after his death. In fact,
he married them between 1833 and the year of his assassination, 1844.
Many believe that his second and
subsequent wives were elderly who were widows and needed protection. In
fact, most of his plural wives were young women.
It is commonly believed that polygyny was necessary at the time
because there was "an abundance of women who wouldn't otherwise be able
to be married, [and] old women [were] marrying into polygyny for financial
It is also widely believed that "only the
first wife [was] having sexual relations with the husband," and that
additional spouses were "spiritual wives" who remained celibate.
It is also believed that "such a
small percentage practiced it means that polygyny really was an insignificant
part of Mormon history and doctrine." In fact, it was a core practice of the
early LDS Church, and remains an identifying practice among many Fundamentalist
Mormon groups today.
Books by R.S. Van Wagoner 3 and Todd Compton 4 seem to have conclusively dispelled
these beliefs as false.
Origins of Mormon polygyny:
Joseph Smith, was the founder of the Church of Christ in 1830. This
church eventually split to become the almost 100 denominations and sects forming
today's LDS Restorationist movement. Smith first secretly promoted the concept of
polygyny during the 1830s. This type of marital structure involves one man married to multiple
wives. The practice has been
variously called the Law of
Abraham, the Patriarchal Order of Marriage, Celestial Plural Marriage,
or the Law of the Priesthood.
Associated with these was the Law of Sarah. More
Joseph Smith himself assigned women to some of the
Mormon men. He married dozens of women himself. Mormon writer Todd Compton
"I have identified thirty-three well-documented wives of
Joseph Smith, which some may regard as an overly conservative
numbering ...Historians Fawn Brodie, D. Michael Quinn, and George D. Smith
list forty-eight, forty-six, and forty-three, respectively. Yet in problematic
areas it may be advisable to err on the side of caution."
His first wife was Emma. He
married his second wife Fannie Alger in 1833 when she was 17 years of age. He
apparently secretly married Emma's counselor and her secretary in the Nauvoo
Relief Society. Emma was president of the group. "This was
apparently done without Emma's knowledge or consent." It is reported
that one wife was only fourteen years of age at the time that she
married Joseph. 1,2
When the Mormons were
centered in Nauvoo, IL (previously called Commerce, IL.) during 1844, a group
led by the First Presidency counselor, William Law, split from the teachings
of Joseph Smith. They printed the first of a series of publications in
the local newspaper, "The Nauvoo Expositor." It exposed some of the
secret practices of church members, including plural marriage. Before
subsequent editions could be printed, allegedly "Smith and the city council had the
press destroyed." 1
Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested for the alleged crime. A mob later broke
into the jail and assassinated both of them.
Brigham Young's promotion of polygyny:
It was not until eight years
after Joseph Smith's death, on 1852-AUG-29, that the LDS Church publicly acknowledged the practice of
polygyny. 1"It was read in the
conference held in Great Salt Lake City, and Apostle Orson Pratt delivered
the first public discourse on that principle."
Brigham Young replaced Joseph Smith as head of the LDS Church after Smith's
assassination. He continued to promote the practice of polygyny. He had 55 wives
of his own and fathered 56 children during his lifetime. Some quotes from Mormon
"Now if any of you will deny the plurality of wives and continue to
do so, I promise that you will be damned..." Reported in the Deseret
"The only men who become Gods, even the sons of God, are those who
enter into polygamy...I heard the revelation on polygamy, and I believed it
with all my heart... 'Do you think that we shall ever be admitted as a State
into the Union without denying the principle of polygamy?' If we are not
admitted until then, we shall never be admitted." From the Journal of
Discourses, Vol. 11, page 269, 1866)
"Now, where a man in this church says, 'I don't want but one wife, I
will live my religion with one,' he will perhaps be saved in the Celestial
kingdom; but when he gets there he will not find himself in possession of
any wife at all. He has had a talent that he has hid up. He will come
forward and say, 'Here is that which thou gavest me, I have not wasted it,
and here is the one talent,' and he will not enjoy it but it will be taken
and given to those who have improved the talents they received, and he will
find himself without any wife, and he will remain single forever and ever."
Reported in the Deseret News, 1873-SEP-17.
William M. Gardiner, "Shadow Influences of Plural Marriage on
Sexuality Within The Contemporary Mormon Experience," at: