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Introduction to plural marriage:
polygamy, polygyny & polyandry

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All known cultures have established some type of marriage ritual. A major reason has been to provide a stable family structure for the upbringing of children.

Marriage has been an amazingly flexible institution. It is, and has been, in a continuous state of flux. During various eras and within various societies, marriage has generally permitted opposite-sex adult couples of the same religion, culture, and race to marry. But it has often prohibited couples from marrying who are:

Of a certain race,
Of different races,
Of the same-sex,
Too closely related genetically, and
If one or more individuals are of insufficient age.

The definition of marriage in the United States has been changed three times:

bullet African-Americans were not permitted to marry in some states until the end of the Civil War.

bullet Inter-racial couples were not permitted to marry in some states until a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1967 overturned all 16 of the country's remaining miscegenation laws.

bullet Same-sex couples were not permitted to marry anywhere in the U.S. until the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts ordered the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples starting on 2004-MAY-17. They are still not allowed to marry in most U.S. states.
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About polygamy:

This series of essays deals with families which include more than two spouses. In the U.S. and Canada, most marriages are between two persons -- generally one woman and one man. However polygamous marriages (a.k.a. plural marriages) do exist, and have not been actively prosecuted by some state and provincial governments -- notably Utah in the U.S. and British Columbia in Canada. However, no political jurisdiction in North America formally registers polygamous marriages.

There are a number of terms that define relationships involving more than two persons:

  • Serial monogamy: One person marrying a series of one or more other persons over time, while remaining married to only one at a time. Since the divorce rate in North America is close to 50%, and since most divorced persons remarry, serial monogamy is close to being the majority behavior in North America.

  • Bigamous marriages typically involve one man and multiple wives in which each wife is unknown to the other(s). The first wife to be married is involved in a legally recognized marriage. The second and subsequent marriages are illegal and not recognized by the government.

  • Polygamous relationships are like bigamous relationships, except that all individuals involved are aware of each other. They come in three forms:

    • Polygynous marriages consist of one man and multiple wives. This is by far the most common arrangement.

    • Polyandrous marriages consist of one woman and multiple husbands; they are quite rare.

    • Polyamorous relationships is a generic term covering polygamous relationships and can also include multiple females involved with multiple males.

Almost all polygamous marriages in North America fall into one of two categories:


Patriarchal structure: These are typically polygynous families who follow a conservative Christian belief system. They believe that marriage should be complementary with the husband and wives holding different, strictly defined roles. The husband is to love his wives and have authority over them. The wives are expected to submit to their husband's instructions.

The vast majority -- perhaps totaling 30,000 to 50,000 individuals -- follow one of the  Fundamentalist Mormon denominations which have been excommunicated from the main denomination: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

There are many allegations of sexual abuse, trafficing of teenage girls, expelling of male teenagers from the community, welfare fraud, forced marriages of young women to much older men, etc associated with fundamentalist Mormon faith groups.

There are also non-Mormon polygamous Christian sects and families who call themselves "Christian polygamists."


Egalitarian structure: These are typically formed by followers of mainline or liberal Christian denominations, Wiccans, other Neopagans, or secularists. They believe that men and women should be free to enter plural marriages of any type: polygynous, polyandrous, or group marriage, where they are free to negotiate their individual roles and responsibilities. The "Liberated Christians" movement in Phoenix, AZ advocates voluntary polygamy (either polygyny and polyandry) and the equality of the sexes. 1  Most prefer to use the term "polyamory" to describe their family structures in order to differentiate them from patriarchal polygamous families.

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Polygyny in Islam:

Polygyny is found among some Muslims: In Islam, Sharia law permits a man to marry up to four wives. However, he must meet a strict requirement: he must treat all wives equally. Upon immigrating to North America or Europe his family structure comes in conflict with national laws. Western countries are faced with the phenomenon of Muslim men visiting their country of origin on vacation and returning with an additional wife.

According to the Brussels Journal:

"The Islamic Cultural Center Norway (ICCN), an immigrant organisation subsidised by the Norwegian state, advises Muslims in Norway to take several wives because polygamy 'is advantageous and ought to be practiced where conditions lend themselves to such practice'....Muslim immigrants who come to live in Europe often bring along their extended families, which may contain two, three and even four wives, and all of their offspring. Such families average up to 15 people, which means that up to half a million of France’s 60 million inhabitants, a significant section of the entire population, may be living in polygamous families. There are also hundreds of polygamous families in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries." 2

Some countries, like Norway and Britain, are making allowances for the additional wives. In the U.S., polygyny is a criminal offense and open to prosecution in all areas of the country, except perhaps in Utah where the state has a history of ignoring state laws and condoning polygyny, as long as the spouses are not too open about it.

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Polygyny in Canada:

In British Columbia, Canada, where members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect have openly practiced polygyny for decades, many constitutional experts believe that the federal law restricting marriage to two persons is probably unconstitutional. The freedom of religion clauses in the Charter of Rights and Freedom -- Canada's constitution -- are viewed as permitting polygamous relationships if they are religiously-based. A hearing began in 2010-NOV at the British Columbia Supreme Court in which the court will assess the constitutionality of Canada's anti-polygamy law which was written in the late 19th century to oppress Mormon immigrants from the U.S.

In 2011-NOV, the Court ruled that the federal law that prohibits bigamy and polygamy law does restrict freedom of religious belief and association. However, because of the extensive harm that patriarchal form of polygamy does to women, child brides and male youth, religious restriction is justified and thus is constitutional.

The case also studied polyamory, which is typically a secular egalitarian form of polygamy quite different from the religious patriarchal form found in fundamentalist Mormon communities. The Court concluded that their practices could continue without government interference as long as they did not conduct ceremonies similar to marriages. The case may be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada for a final decision.

More information on the legal status of polygamy in various countries.

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Polygamy in the media:

Polygyny has been covered in recent TV programs:

  • The Home Box Office (HBO) network has been broadcasting episodes of Big Love since 2006. It is a fictional series about a fundamentalist Mormon family in Sandy, UT, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The main characters are a businessman, his three sister wives, and nine children. The fifth and final season begins in 2011-JAN. The five seasons will eventually total 53 episodes. Three wives are the minimum that some fundamentalist Mormons believe is necessary for a man to attain the highest level of heaven after death. 3

  • The Learning Channel (TLC) broadcasts a series Sister Wives, a reality show that features a Kidy Brown, his four wives, their 13 children, 3 step-children, and his new girlfriend. As in the HBO series, the family follows a fundamentalist Mormon faith. As with most the estimated 38,000 Mormon fundamentalists involved in plural families, the husband is legally married to one wife, and married in only religious ceremonies to the others. 4 The program premiered on 2010-SEP-26. As of SEP-28, the Lehi police are studying whether the family is violating Utah's bigamy laws, which criminalize a man living with one legally married wife and cohapiting with other women. The law carries a five year prison term. In Utah, plural marriages are normally only investigated when there are allegations of abuse, sexual assault and/or fraud, or when a family embarrases the state by going public. The last person to be convicted was polygynoust Tom Green in 2001 who also went public on national TV. 5

  • The National Geographic Channel broadcast a documentary in the UK called "The Man with 121 children (and 24 wives)." It was featured on "Weird Love Night" during the summer of 2010. It featured Winston Blackmore, the leader of one of the two FLDS factions in Bountiful, BC. Other estimates that have appeared in the media of the total number of his wives were 19 and 20. 6

All of these prominent programs dealing with polygyny cover plural marriages within fundamentalist Mormon faith groups. None deal with plural wives among Muslim families. None cover the decision by those polyamorous families who are not motivated by religious beliefs but decide to enter a equalitarian plural relationship for secular reasons. The latter may form the majority of plural marriages in North America.

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Reference used:

  1. "Multiple intimate relationships: A summary of Liberated Christians' views," at:
  2. Paul Belien, "Polygamy All Over the Place," The Brussels Journal, 2005-NOV-17, reprinted at:
  3. "Big Love," Wikipedia, as at 2010-DEC-04, at:
  4. Katy Hall, "Sister Wives': TLC's Polygamist Family Asks Us To 'Rethink Marriage'," Huffington Post, 2010-SEP-23, at:
  5. Jennifer Dobner, "Sister Wives' Kody Brown Investigated For Felony Bigamy," Huffington Post, 2010-SEP-28, at:
  6. "The Man with 121 children (and 24 wives)." National Geographic (UK), 2010, at:

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Copyright © 2004 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-SEP-04
Latest update: 2011-NOV-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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