One thing that is identified with the LDS church is our history of plural marriage or polygamy. I am quite proud of my history as I am descended from the 12th wife of Archibald Gardner.
I hope to dispel all myths and misconceptions of plural marriage in the LDS church, as best I can.
First, are we still practicing it? No! The church has a very strict policy that plural marraige cannot be practiced in the church, even if it is legal.
There are some people in Utah and elsewhere who claim to be mormons and who are practicing it. You will note that these are not members of the LDS church but their own church that they have formed. They may claim to be spiritual heirs to Joseph Smith, but I do not believe that they are.
Let’s move beyond this simple fact and into the history of plural marriage in the LDS church.
Before we do, I wish to emphasize the role of the family in the LDS church. The church believes that families can be eternal units. We believe that we are all part of the direct family of God, He as our Father, and we as His children. Men and women in the church, once married, are considered as one and should be united in all things. Children, although a challenge to raise properly, are considered part of our eternal blessings in salvation. Indeed, we believe that God’s purpose and work is to bring to pass the salvation of his children. If that is what God does, we should make our work and purpose to save our children as well. And that is the only source of real and lasting joy.
Now, what is plural marriage as practiced by the LDS church in the past? It is simply this: A man can take an additional wife if (a) he can support her and her (current or future) children, (b) is completely worthy, (c) has permission from his current wife (or wives), and (d) is permitted by God as revealed by the prophet.
In some cases, God commands men through the prophet to marry an additional wife, sometimes someone in particular. In most cases, the men petitioned the prophet first as moved by personal revelation.
The first great misconception is that these plural wives served as a sort of harem. Nothing could be further than the truth. As a wife, you have claim on your husband not only for your material support, but for the support of your children. As a wife, you share equally in your husband’s enterprises, both spiritually and physically. Husbands can only exercise their authority in the home through persuasion, patience, sincerity, and temperance, and of course, Christ-like love. This is anything but a harem, where women are kept as little more than slaves to titillate the desires of their husbands.
Besides, if the founders of the LDS church wanted to gratify themselves sexually, why would they put so many restrictions on plural marriage and why would they give so many rights and powers to the wives? Why not rescind the Law of Chastity and allow men and women to engage in whatever sexual practice they desired?
So, what was going through the minds of a man when he wanted to get married to an additional wife? I can think of only one reason. Either they were being obedient to the will of God (if they were commanded to take additional wives), or they were intent on raising even more children righteously.
Let me talk about how the practice started. As near as I can tell, a few years before Joseph Smith was martyred, he enquired of the Lord on matters of marriage and salvation. In response, the Lord gave a revelation that outlined the plan of salvation and what role marriage has therein. In that plan, he also taught about what eternal marriage was and how it should be practiced. He also taught of what plural marriage was and how it should be practiced. Then the Lord commanded Joseph to take additional wives.
Yes, this sounds crazy. I don’t blame you for thinking it is. However, many things the LDS church had done up to this point was simply crazy if you look at it from the worldly perspective. Ultimately, I believe we will understand the will of God in these matters and we would be silly to think any other way was possible.
Joseph initially rejected the injunction by the Lord at the end of the revelation. He loved his wife more than anything else in the world, and he feared he would break her heart when he told her. The Lord was adamant, and warned Joseph that he had to convey the revelation or he would risk getting cut off. So Joseph reluctantly complied.
He announced to his wife the revelation. She consented, calling it the will of the Lord. Then he announced it to a few very senior members of the leadership, all of them devout and loyal to the church. Hyrum Smith, his brother and life-long confidant, nearly fell away from the church because of it. However, after a test of his faith, he came to believe in it as well.
The point of this story is that it wasn’t as if Joseph Smith ran home and told his wife that he could have his own private harem. It wasn’t anything of the sort. It was a very difficult revelation to bear, the kind of burden that prophets wished they didn’t have to carry.
Now, at the time it was first practiced, the membership at large was not told about it and it was kept secret from the world. And that’s about the time he got martyred.
After this, the mormons were driven out of the United States and migrated to the Salt Lake Valley, then a part of Mexico (but soon to be claimed by the United States.) There, they practiced plural marriage.
My grandfather was one of those driven out of the United States. He practiced plural marriage and had 12 wives. I am a descendant of the 12th. If he did not marry 12 wives, I would not be alive today.
I want to talk about the living arrangements of plural wives at that time. With so much area to spread out, and a commandment from God to do so, husbands would get some land, build a house and a store or a mill or something, and give it to one of their wives. Then they would visit each of their wives and do what needed to be done to keep the place functional. In the case of the 12th wife of Archibald Gardner, she was given a mill up in a town called Afton, Wyoming. She lived far, far away from the other wives.
Now, as Utah began petitioning to become a state, the Republican Party discovered the practice of polygamy and began condemning it and whipping up the population with lies and false rumors about it. Some of the first elected representatives to the US Congress from Utah had multiple wives. Inevitably, it led to conflict.
Pressure mounted, the US passed laws forbidding plural marriage, and they used federal troops to enforce it. Many of the practitioners were caught and thrown in jail, for crimes they committed before the law was even passed! This is, of course, a violation of the ex-post facto clause in the Constitution. It was even questionable whether the federal government, according to the Constitution of the United States, could pass these kinds of laws.
During this time, despite the assets of the church being seized, the leaders of the church either being imprisoned or on the run, the church did not rescind its policy. In fact, I believe that after the law was passed there were still plural marriages being performed in Mexico and Canada. (I believe Mitt Romney is descended from one of these marriages.) This shows that the church simply does not buckle under social pressure. They were willing to give it all up–including their freedom and property–only to obey a commandment.
The revelation did come, eventually, that the practice of plural marriage should cease church-wide. This upset a lot of people who believed in the practice, of course. These people left the church and formed their own churches just to practice polygamy. Many of them are still around today, and still running from the federal prosecutors. But in the LDS church, the practice was ended, and it is pretty clear that it will never be practiced again.
Now, does the LDS church still believe in plural marriage? Absolutely. I believe that it is part of God’s plan, that the way it was practiced in the LDS church was correct, and that the people who practiced it are under no condemnation for it. It is still in our scripture as doctrine. Plural marriage is not going away in our church, any more than Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon can.
But will you ever find someone in the LDS church with a second wife? No. We are forbidden to practice it, removing one of the critical conditions for it. Anyone who is practicing it is practicing a perverted form of it, because they are doing it without God’s permission.
I’ll answer questions if you have them.