Origins of Polygamy among the Mormons

Brigham Young MormonPolygamy was never practiced publicly by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) prior to 1852, when Brigham Young, the second Prophet and President of the Mormon Church, directed Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt to publicly state the practice and the reasons for it.  When Joseph Smith, who received the revelation concerning polygamy and first began the practice, first learned that God would command him to practice polygamy is unsure.  Rumors about polygamy circulated in the late 1830s and 1840s, during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. However, the revelation about polygamy, recorded today in the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 132, was not written down until July 12, 1843, at the request of his brother Hyrum.

According to the revelation, Joseph Smith had asked God why ancient patriarchs and prophets like Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jacob, David were permitted to have more than one wife (see Doctrine and Covenants 132:1) and why the Mosaic Law, which both Jews and Christians believe to have been inspired by God, makes provisions for polygamy (see Exodus 21:10 and Deuteronomy 21:15).  At what date this prayer and revelation first took place is unknown, though circumstantial evidence suggests that it was as early as 1831.  The Book of Mormon, translated in 1829, makes mention of polygamy and, while it forbids polygamy for the population extant during the stewardship of the prophet Jacob, it recognizes that sometimes God commands men to practice polygamy.

Jacob 2:27-29 reads:

Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts. Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes (Jacob 2:27-29).

Anti-Mormons and other critics of Mormonism see this passage as contradictory to later Mormon teachings, but such critics fail to quote the next verse, which explains the conditions under which polygamy may be practiced:

For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things (Jacob 2:30).

Polygamy is thus to be practiced as a religious principle and only when commanded by God.  It should never be employed to gratify lusts and can only be practiced properly under God’s direction and for his purposes.

Joseph Smith was reluctant to teach this new doctrine and, for many years, he did not share the revelation with anyone, not even his closest and most trusted associates.  According to later statements made by Lorenzo Snow and Brigham Young, Joseph Smith was originally repelled by the doctrine of polygamy and only began preaching it after an angel of God appeared to him with a drawn sword and commanded him to teach it or face destruction.  After that, Joseph Smith began teaching polygamy to members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other faithful Mormons.  This apparently began around 1839.  While polygamy played virtually no role in the many persecutions Mormons endured in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and even in Illinois, it did cause a few Mormons who learned about the teaching to leave the Mormon Church and turn against Joseph Smith.

It is not clear how many women Joseph Smith married in his lifetime.  Records indicate that he was sealed to 28 women before his death, though it is not clear how many he cohabited with.  There is no evidence that he had children by any other woman than Emma Smith, his first wife.  According to Mormon teachings about marriage, often called celestial marriage or eternal marriage, a husband and wife can be married for time and eternity.  “Time” refers to the duration of mortality while “eternity” refers to the next life.  Marriage for “eternity” is called “sealing” by Mormons.  In Mormon temples, a man and woman are sealed for all eternity.

Because of this distinction, Mormonism admits three types of marriages: marriages for time only, marriages for time and eternity, and marriages for eternity only.  Marriages for time end at death and can be done under legal or ecclesiastical authority.  Marriages for eternity and for time and eternity must be performed by the authority of the priesthood, in Mormon temples.  It is therefore possible for a woman to marry one man for time, but to be sealed to another for eternity, though she would only live with the man to whom she is married for time.  Mormonism teaches that to obtain the highest degree of blessings in heaven, both men and women must be sealed to someone in the Mormon temple.  In cases where a spouse could not enter a Mormon temple because he/she was not a member or where he/she was not worthy to enter, early Mormon practice permitted a person to be sealed to another person to whom they did wed and with whom they did not cohabit.  Though many of Joseph Smith’s marriages were undoubtedly for “time and eternity,” it is likely that in some cases he was merely “sealed” to a woman whose husband was not worthy to receive the temple blessings.  That this was practiced can be shown by the fact that women whose husbands could not enter the Mormon temple continued to be sealed to Joseph Smith by proxy long after his death until the Mormon Church finally put a stop to this practice.

Another aspect of Mormon polygamy that often gets attacked is reputed marriages to teenage girls. Today, in the United States, the average age for a first marriage is between 25 and 27 years old, but in the nineteenth century, teenage marriages were not that unusual and in many cases the marriage was contracted, but the girl remained with her family until she reached adulthood.  18 was considered the best age for a young woman to seriously consider marriage and most of Joseph Smith’s wives were between 19 and 21.  A couple of the women were younger, about 16, though it is likely they did not cohabit until later.  In frontier America, it was not common for a girl to get married as young as 16 or even 14, but nor was it unheard of.

The doctrine of polygamy first became a public issue in Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Mormons lived between 1839 and 1846.  Here, Joseph Smith taught publicly that no one could take more than one wife unless commanded otherwise by God.  In Thursday October 5, 1843, the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded in his journal:

Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives: for, according to the law, I hold the keys of this power in the last days; for there is never but one on earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred; and I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise (see TPJS 324).

Certain persons, such as Nauvoo’s mayor John C. Bennett, had been claiming license to commit adultery because of the teaching of polygamy.  Bennett was excommunicated, and Joseph Smith emphasized that only one person held the sealing power over marriage on the earth at one time and that person was the Prophet and President of the Mormon Church.  Thus, only when directed by revelation could a person practice polygamy.

By the early 1840s, most of the leaders of the Mormon Church were aware of polygamy, as well as those families that were participating in it.  Some families, for example the Higbees and the Laws, refused to accept polygamy as divinely inspired and so declared Joseph Smith to be a fallen prophet.  The doctrine of polygamy was a major factor in the decision of the Higbees and the Laws to publish the Nauvoo Expositor. This paper castigated Joseph Smith and was subsequently destroyed by order of the Nauvoo City Council.  The riot that followed the destruction of the press was the immediate charge with which Joseph Smith’s enemies had him arrested and hauled off to Carthage Jail, where he was murdered by a mob on June 27, 1844, while awaiting trial.  After the exodus of the Mormon pioneers to the Rocky Mountains, polygamy was practiced more openly, though never widely.  Estimates are that, at most, twenty percent of Mormons were associated with polygamous families.  Some estimates put it as low as five percent.

Among Mormons, many folk doctrines and myths exist as to why polygamy was introduced.  Many have taught that polygamy was introduced to help care for young widows or that there was an excess of women in the Mormon population.  Neither was the case.  Though these were factors in certain polygamous marriages, these cannot explain why polygamy was introduced.  The only answer possible is the one that the Book of Mormon gives and which was echoed by later Mormon prophets.  Sometimes, God commands his followers to practice polygamy to raise up seed unto Him.




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