Mormon is a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are many off-shoot faiths that use the name Mormon, but they are not part of the church with the formal name and the Church has no control over them. This article addresses the polygamy practiced only by the mainstream Church, not by apostate groups.
Today’s Mormons do not practice polygamy and anyone who does is excommunicated. Polygamy is a practice approved by God as shown in the Bible, but only when commanded by Him for His own purposes and in His own ways. Some prophets practiced polygamy and the ten tribes of Israel derive from that practice. Abraham, Jacob, as did Gideon, and Elkanah (the father of Samuel) are among those who practiced polygamy. Since some of those practicing were prophets, we can see God gives approval in certain situations. Jesus gave instructions for the treatment of multiple wives. (Deuteronomy 21:15-17 and Exodus 21:10-11 contain examples of Biblical teachings on polygamy, demonstrating approval. We see no examples of God telling us how to practice sin correctly.)
However, it may not be practiced randomly. In today’s society there is no need for it and so it is not called for.
As practiced in the 1800s by the Mormons, it was very different from the polygamy we often see practiced by apostate groups. Although introduced through Joseph Smith, it was not widely practiced until Brigham Young was the prophet. It appears that early polygamous marriages were spiritual marriages without intimacy. They were merely a way of joining two families together eternally. Mormons do not believe God approves of forced divorce at death without the opportunity to retain our families forever and so the eternal aspects of marriage impact the earthly aspects of marriage.
Only one-third of marriages in the 1800s involved polygamy and a third of the women who entered into those relationships were divorced or widowed. In a time when few women were educated or able to support a family, it gave these women financial and moral support. For immigrant women, it was a rapid way to enter into American society and to be protected. Since women had few legal rights—and the federal government stripped Utah women of their rights—marriage was an essential protection for many women.
Women had all the power in polygamous marriages. A man who wished to take on an additional wife had to first get the permission of his first wife. (There are many recorded instances of the wife being the one to initiate it.) He then had to obtain permission from the woman he wished to marry. No woman could be forced into marriage. She had to give consent. Then he had to get permission from the Church. Women had the advantage of seeing how he treated his current wives before making a decision. If a woman chose polygamy but then realized she couldn’t handle it, Brigham Young gave her a divorce, despite church teachings discouraging it. Men, however, who found themselves uncomfortable with their decision were told to return home and work harder on their marriages. They were expected to keep the covenant they had made.
Many Mormon women found that polygamy gave them advantages traditional marriages lacked. Emmeline B. Wells, a Mormon woman who lived in polygamy, believed it made her less dependent on men and gave her more of her own identity than if she built her identity as the only wife of a man. She had a successful career as a magazine editor and worked extensively in the women’s suffrage movement with Susan B. Anthony and other leaders while married to a man with eight wives.
Mormon men in those early days were often sent on missions without their wives lasting several years, even when they were married. (This is not done today.) Women needed to run the farms or businesses alone while the men were gone. Polygamy allowed the women to share the workload. In addition, if there were wives willing to care for the children, the other wives in the family were encouraged to get better educations and to hold careers if they chose. Mormon women held positions seldom open to women in those days. Brigham Young said:
“As I have often told my sisters in the Female Relief Societies, we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large (DBY, 216–17).
The sisters in our Female Relief Societies have done great good. Can you tell the amount of good that the mothers and daughters in Israel are capable of doing? No, it is impossible. And the good they do will follow them to all eternity (DBY, 216). (Brigham Young, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young.)
Polygamy was discontinued more than 100 years ago. God revealed what would happen to the Mormons as a result of illegal government actions if they continued. At any rate, it had served its purposes for the time. God is always in control and he knew how long it would need to be in practice and how long He had to accomplish those purposes.