Polygamy has not been practiced by Mormons for more than one hundred years. Today’s polygamist belong to apostate groups that the real Mormons (a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) have no control over. Anyone who is a member of the mainstream church is excommunicated for practicing polygamy.
Polygamy, as it was practiced in the early church, was very different than the way many groups today practice it. It was also a minority practice, with only about a third of married women in polygamist marriages, and thirty percent of those women had been previously married.
Mormons believe that God’s standard for marriage is one man and one woman. However, throughout history He has, from time to time, authorized it in order to carry out His purposes. It was practiced in Biblical times even by prophets when God approved it. As an example. Abraham took a second wife in order to produce an heir. This heir’s lineage became very important in Biblical history. The Bible contains instructions to men on the proper treatment of multiple wives and their children, which demonstrates His acceptance of it—when He has authorized it.
Joseph Smith was the first prophet of the restoration. Mormon beliefs include a Great Apostasy that occurred after the deaths of Jesus Christ and His apostles. This is evidenced by the many churches that exist today, all teaching conflicting information on eternally significant topics. When Joseph Smith was commanded by God to restore the ancient church, the restoration included many principles long forgotten by modern Christians, including the building of temples and a proper understanding of deity. It also included polygamy. Joseph was very uncomfortable with this commandment and stalled on the practice of it. God ordered him to follow through and he did marry a number of women, but it appears these were only ceremonial. DNA has ruled out all alleged children from other wives and one wife wrote in her journal that after the ceremony he shook her hand and she returned to her own home, not his, and he returned to his.
With the presidency of Brigham Young, the marriages became more traditional, although some were only courtesy marriages that allowed the women to be financially and legally protected. Although Mormon women were fully emancipated within their own communities, the government did not recognize that emancipation. This meant that unmarried women had few legal rights. They also had fewer opportunities to support themselves. Brigham Young strongly encouraged women to train for non-traditional careers, including medicine and law, but most women, being new to the church, had not received the education or training needed to support themselves. Polygamy provided a way for more women, in a church that had more women than men, to gain legal protection and financial support.
Unlike some polygamist groups today, Mormons were not required to practice polygamy. The church did not assign wives, nor did they take them away as some groups do today. If a man wanted another wife, he had to receive permission from his first wife and she had to approve the specific woman he wanted to marry. In many families, it was the women who prayed and felt another wife should come into the family. Men had to have permission from the church to take additional wives, and had to demonstrate to the church they could support additional wives, would care for them properly, and had the permission of their current family. If a woman agreed to a polygamist marriage and then discovered she couldn’t handle it, she was granted a divorce, although men who decided they didn’t feel comfortable were told to go home and work on their marriages.
While not all women were comfortable in these relationships, many saw advantages to them in a time when women had fewer options in life. If there were wives willing to care for all the children, other wives were permitted to return to school for further education or to take a career. Many wives in these families had unusual careers for their time as a result. Martha Ballard was a doctor long before medical schools were even admitting women and then became the first female state senator in the country. She ran to bring attention to the need for improved medical care and her opponent was her own husband. She won.
Mormon women did not feel oppressed by the practice of polygamy because it was entirely voluntary and because it offered them more freedom than traditional marriages. They had prayed and received God’s own testimony that this was right, and they were used to doing difficult things when God asked them to. They had a faith unparalleled in history. These were strong women who had endured persecution, the murders of spouses and children, and a grueling pioneer journey across the country. Many had immigrated to the United States. Some had been disowned by their families for ther conversions. They were opinionated and capable, and until the federal government stripped them of their rights, they were emancipated, and so many of them were puzzled by the world’s attitude toward them. Few outsiders understood the unique circumstances of Mormon polygamy.
Mormon women became avid suffragettes when the government took over Utah and took from Mormon women their vote and other rights. Some traveled East regularly to work with Susan B. Anthony and other women’s rights leaders. They ran their emancipation groups through the Relief Society, the official women’s auxiliary of the church. Outsiders supported these efforts because they believed that if women in Utah could vote, they would outlaw polygamy. They were surprised to learn these women had no interest in doing so. Those who didn’t want to practice it simply didn’t. Those who did were happy doing so.
At a conference on women’s rights, Eliza R. Snow, then president of the Relief Society and a wife of Brigham Young, said:
“Our enemies pretend that, in Utah, woman is held in a state of vassalage—that she does not act from choice, but by coercion. What nonsense!
“I will now ask of this assemblage of intelligent ladies, Do you know of any place on the face of the earth, where woman has more liberty and where she enjoys such high and glorious privileges as she does here as a Latter-day Saint? No! the very idea of a woman here in a state of slavery is a burlesque on good common sense … as women of God, filling high and responsible positions, performing sacred duties—women who stand not as dictators, but as counselors to their husbands, and who, in the purest, noblest sense of refined womanhood, are truly their helpmates—we not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demands we should!” (See Jaynann Morgan Payne, “Eliza R. Snow: First Lady of the Pioneers,” Ensign, September 1973.)