Mormon Polygamy Past & Present
In the 1820s, Joseph Smith Jr. said that he was visited by the angel Moroni, who gave him gold plates inscribed with the history of ancient American people (Albanes 2003). He then published what he translated from these plates and it was called the Book of Mormon (2003). The Book of Mormon was a record of God's dealings with the pre-Columbian ancestors of the American Indian (Van Wagoner 1992). They explained the Hebrew origins of the Indian and established America as a chosen land (1992). After publication, Smith founded a church based on a restorationist perspective (2003) -- simply meaning that it had the mission of "restoring" the content of the Bible (Compton 2011). Smith, felt particularly close to the Old Testament. He wanted to restore the traditions found in the Old Testament as well as some found in the New. Some of these traditions that he wanted to restore were the authority of the prophets, temple rituals, and the ancient Semitic custom of plural marriage (2011). It is believed that Smith's first plural marriage took place in the 1830s in Ohio to 16-year-old Fanny Alger (1992). Smith was believed to have married (called "sealing" in Mormon terminology) again sometime in 1838 in the state of Missouri (2011). However, the biggest number of Smith's 33-documented marriages took place between 1841 and 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois (2011). This number is an estimate since there may be marriages that have not had any paperwork or the paperwork is missing (2011).
Smith believed not only that plural marriage should be restored, but that one gained a higher status in the afterlife based on the number of wives and children a man had in the current life (Compton 2011). This is what gave the reasoning behind large plural marriages in later Mormonism. Polygamy was called "celestial" marriage (Von Wagoner 1992) and marriage was considered much more than a terrestrial arrangement (Hardy 1992). This was accepted because it was necessary for exaltation, the highest salvation there is in Mormon heaven. Mormons today accept, generally speaking, that monogamous marriage is adequate in order to reach exaltation, but they still believe that there will be polygamy in heaven (2011). Smith also practiced polyandry by marring 11 women who were already married to other men (2011). According to Van Wagoner (1992), Smith was even married to one Sarah M. Kimball in 1842 despite her solid marriage to non-Mormon Hiram Kimball. Sarah stated at one time that Smith taught her "the principle of marriage for eternity, and the doctrine of plural marriage. He said that in teaching this he realized he jeopardized his life" (1992).
Historically speaking, polygamy has always been about having a lot of children. Men potentially could marry older women for the purpose of having a companion or for taking care of the men (much like a mother would her child) as well as for the purpose of forming an alliance in the next life (Compton 2011). However, most commonly it had to do with bearing children. One example is Brigham Young who had approximately 56 wives, many of whom had more of a platonic relationship with him (2011). He also had 56 children by 19 of his connubial wives (2011). Joseph Smith, on the other hand, never lived openly with any of his wives, though many of the women confirmed that the marriage was a sexual one (2011). When Smith first brought up the topic of polygamy to his closest followers, many were shocked by the thought, but many accepted it and went onto have plural families as well (2011). During the time that Smith was alive, polygamy was illegal in Nauvoo, Illinois and thus it was kept a secret. After Smith died, the Mormon exodus to Utah occurred and it was there that plural marriage became more of an open concept (Compton 2011)
There are interesting as well as remarkable stories about women and men who faced major challenges in making the ancient Semitic tradition work in America. There are, of course, other stories that are not quite as favorable -- for example, men favoring certain wives while others were left to face emotional and financial challenges (Compton 2011). Because there were other wives, each woman didn't get the individual attention that wives who weren't in plural marriages received. Because of this, women in plural marriages often have had very close bonds with their children in order to make up for the lack of a husband's attention (2011). Even though polygamy is rife with many issues, Smith still contended that it was through plural marriage that one would be able to find complete salvation (2011). Polygamy was considered divine by both men and women; however, plural marriage was much more common among the church's elite than it was in general (2011). Approximately 20 to 30% of Mormons practiced polygamy (2011).
There are many reasons that polygamy was so widely accepted. While the main reason was a religious one, there were other motives. For example, there were times when two important figures wanted to create a bond and so one would give his daughter to the other, which would create an alliance that was quite strong (Compton 2011). Other instances were when men married widows or women who didn't have husbands in order to help them financially (2011). There were other times when a man and woman felt a strong spiritual or emotional bond with the other (2011). Wives in these cases were coined "spiritual wives" (Von Wagoner 1992).
According to Van Wagoner (1992), the notions about polygamy in the 19th century being dominated by lascivious males with overactive libidos did not exist. He notes, "The image of unlimited lust was largely the creation of Gentile travelers to Salt Lake City more interested in titillating audiences back home than accurately portraying plural marriage" (1992). While there is no doubt that there have been cases of abusive husbands or not completely religious-thinking Mormons marrying for other reasons (i.e., sex), for the most part, Mormons look at sexuality from a very puritanical point-of-view (Compton 2011). Childbearing was certainly encouraged, but idealistic religious views were the major reason for polygamy (2011). It was the need for sensationalism that made polygamy sound so scandalous (1992).
Many people in the past viewed polygamy as quite curious and unlawful, but many of these people did not consider that polygamy was indeed practiced by the early Protestants and that most Mormons viewed it as being something essentially puritanical (Van Wagoner 1992). In 1854, the first Republican party platform spoke out against the "twin relics of barbarism" -- slavery and polygamy -- and after Congress passed the Merrill anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed it into law (Compton 2011). However, the Mormons believed that God's laws took preference over the laws of man and thus chose to keep practicing it anyway, despite what the law said. However, there was quite a bit of political pressure against polygamy and it was increasing after the Act (2011). Utah was a territory at the time and it was trying to become a state and thus legalize plural marriage; however, this was one of the main reasons that Utah could not get its statehood (2011).
Congress passed the Edmunds Act in 1882, which disfranchised Mormon polygamists and allowed them to be imprisoned on grounds of "unlawful cohabitation" (Van Wagoner 1992). John Taylor, the Mormon Church president at this time, was adamant in saying that Mormons would never get rid of polygamy. Taylor thus went into hiding -- as did many other Mormons at the time to escape the ramifications of the law (Compton 2011). Despite this, there were many Mormon men arrested and put in jail by federal marshals (2011). They served terms as "prisoners of conscience" (2011).
Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Bill in 1882, which mandated that the Mormon church relinquish its property to the federal government -- which included its precious temples (Compton 2011), destroying the Mormon theocratic system (Van Wagoner 1992). The Mormon Church's second-in-command -- George Q. Cannon, who also served time for cohabitation in 1888, said of their quest to keep polygamy alive:
To comply with the request of our enemies [and give up polygamy] would be to give up all hope of ever entering into the glory of God, the Father, and Jesus Christ, the son. So intently interwoven is this precious doctrine [polygamy] with the exaltation of men and women in the great hereafter that it cannot be given up without giving up at the same time all hope of immortal glory (Compton 2011).
In 1890, then President of the Mormon Church, Wilford Woodruff, challenged by the loss of all their facilities and temples (as well as any kind of political influence in Utah), made a statement saying that the Mormons would, after all, give up plural marriage (Compton 2011). It was this statement, as well as the Church's promise to stay out of politics, that allowed Utah's statehood in 1896 (2011).