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Plural Marriage (Mormonism)

Plural Marriage (usually referred to as polygamy as practiced by the Mormons, but more properly called polygyny) is a doctrine and was a practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its practice among Mormons substantially subsided after the Church issued a "Manifesto" against the practice in 1890. However, a few members continued to practice plural marriage privately with the approval of a few Church leaders until a second proclamation was issued by the Church in the early 1900s. Under that proclamation those who continued to practice it became subject to excommunication from the Church. The Church continues to forbid the practice under the penalty of excommunication, and Church leaders protest that groups who do practice it should not be referred to as "Mormons" or "Mormon fundamentalists".

In the process of re-translating the Bible, Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Church, inquired in prayer about the polygynous practices of biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He claimed to have received a revelation from God regarding plural marriage (see Doctrine and Covenants 132 (http://scriptures.lds.org/dc/132)), and a new commandment from God to take more wives. In one account Joseph reluctant to practice polygyny did so only because an angel appeared and told Joseph that he would be cut off if he continued to disobey the Lord's commandment.

Polygyny was practiced as early as 1833 although the practice was not publicly taught until 1852, some five years after the Mormons came to Utah. Joseph introduced the doctrine to select individuals, some of whom (such as Brigham Young) were told to take more wives. Some Mormon leaders at the time voiced their objection to the practice and left the Church. Others struggled with their consciences and agreed to the practice only after many strugglings in prayer. Brigham Young famously said that after the doctrine was communicated to him, he would gladly have traded places with the body in a hearse he saw passing down the street, than to have to embrace this doctrine. In one instance the first mayor of Nauvoo, John C. Bennett, was excommunicated for the adulterous practice of "spiritual wifery". Those who left or were driven from the Church set out to expose Joseph and his alleged corruption. Eventually this antagonism led to Joseph surrendering himself to jail for charges of riot and treason. While imprisoned, a mob rushed the jail and murdered Joseph.

Although there is some disagreement as to the precise figure, Joseph Smith was married to about 33 wives during his life time. Under the doctrine of plural marriage, the first wife's consent should be given before a man should marry another wife. However, Joseph Smith's first wife, Emma, was at times opposed to the practice and Joseph probably married some women without Emma knowing beforehand. Some of Joseph's wives were older women and some of them young, the youngest being Helen Mar Kimball who was 14. Some of Joseph Smith's wives were also married to other men (usually other Mormon men in good standing) at the time they married Joseph. Typically these women continued to live with their first husband, not Joseph. There is evidence that Joseph had sexual relations with some of his other wives and may have fathered a few children by some.

According to sympathers, Joseph, Brigham Young and other prominent Church leaders were reluctant to embrace the practice of plural marriage especially given their strict Victorian morals. Those who are most skeptical of Joseph's integrity speculate that Joseph at first committed adultery with Fanny Alger, a young maid in the Smith household and Joseph's first plural wife. He then later came up with the doctrine of plural marriage to legitimize his immorality.

For the most up-to-date account of Joseph's plural marriages attempted from the point of view of Joseph's wives, see In Sacred Loneliness by the Mormon author, Todd Compton.

  • Todd Compton; In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith; Signature Books; ISBN 1-56-085085-X (Hardcover, 1997)

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