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LDS Restorationist movement, including the Mormon Churches

Polygyny during the early 19th century

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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.

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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 marriage:

bullet 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
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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 support purposes..."
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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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 details.

Joseph Smith himself assigned women to some of the Mormon men. He married dozens of women himself. Mormon writer Todd Compton wrote:

"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." 4

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.

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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." 5

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 sources:

bullet "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 News, 1855-NOV-14.
bullet "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)
bullet "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. 6

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  1. William M. Gardiner, "Shadow Influences of Plural Marriage on Sexuality Within The Contemporary Mormon Experience," at:
  2. A list of Joseph Smith's wives appears in Fawn Brodie et al., "No One Knows My History: The life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet," Vintage Books (2nd. edition), Page 335. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  3.   Richard S. Van Wagoner, "Mormon polygamy: A history," Signature books, (1986) Read reviews or order this book
  4. Todd Compton, "In Sacred Loneliness--The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith." It won the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association.  Signature Books, (1997). Read reviews or order this book
  5. Perry Porter, "A Chronology of Federal legislation on Polygamy," 1998-MAR-28, at:
  6. Quotations appear in Jerald & Sandra Tanner, "Covering up Mormon polygamy," Salt Lake City Messenger, Issue #94, 1998-AUG.

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Latest update: 2010-JSN-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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