What's up with polygamy in LDS Church history? Isn't that plenty of reason to reject the Church?

I think the most troubling challenge in LDS Church history is the confusion and messy details associated with that most controversial practice, polygamy. I'm so glad it was ended in 1890, but the implications of that practice continue to affect some people today as they come to terms with non-ideal aspects of Church history. It's often the grounds for people rejecting the Church. Even some faithful members when they read up on polygamy feel their faith shaken. If you wish to understand these past controversies in the Church, it's a complex issue that demands that we examine historical details and our own assumptions and expectations. But there are some intriguing developments in our understanding of polygamy that may challenge your assumptions.

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Mormanity Blog

Mormanity is my LDS blog, in operation since 2004. DNA issues have been discussed frequently there.

Also consider my "Book of Mormon Evidences" page.

You can order a free Book of Mormon at ComeuntoChrist.org.

Understanding Polygamy: Recent Developments To the index at the top

Polygamy is so easy to mock. It's obviously just a tool for a man to exploit women, right? That's the assumption so easily made these days, but if polygamy in Joseph's day was just about sex, forming marriages is far riskier than just having affairs. The assumption of physical intimacy in polygamy simply may not apply to a number of cases, and is unlikely to be a reasonable explanation of the driving force for the practice. But it did occur in some marriages, as Brian C. Hales amply demonstrates in an important essay on polygamy for Interpreter. On the other hand, DNA testing has failed to definitively identify any children from Joseph's polygamous marriages, reminding us that it was not just about sex. (2019 update: As discussed by Allen Wyatt on the Interpreter Foundation Blog, a new DNA study shows that Joseph Smith was not the biological father of Josephine Lyons, often claimed to be a clear case of Joseph fathering a child from a polygamous or polyandrous marriage.) So what was its purpose?

Two important recent contributions from LDS women help us look at polygamy in a different light. First, let me recommend the work of Valerie Hudson. See V.H. Cassler, "Polygamy," SquareTwo, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 2010), which explores significant but previously overlooked language in the scriptures that helps resolve the tension between the Book of Mormon's prohibition of polygamy and the revelation in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants that supported polygamy. She argues that God is not indifferent to polygamy and clearly prefers monogamy for his children. She presents a compelling scriptural case that polygamy should be viewed as an Abrahamic sacrifice for those who took on that challenge during the temporary period when that atypical, normally prohibited practice was in force. You can also listen to a FairMormon.org interview with her on this topic.

Second, in a story from the end of 2013 and early 2014, there are some interesting findings in the work of Meg Stout in her series of essays at the Millennial Star beginning with "A Faithful Joseph." She finds evidence that polygamy was not about sex, and that a possible purpose in having Joseph and others practice polygamy was to clearly establish and demonstrate that the blessings of eternal sealings and eternal family ties were open not just to those in families with only one marriage, but extend to women who were the second or later wife, including polygamous marriages (which have been accepted over the centuries in many cultures) and marriages in which the original first wife was deceased or divorced. That's something I had never considered, but she presents an interesting case for it. Whether that argument stands or falls, her analysis of the cultural setting in which polygamy was introduced and the details from the life of her polygamous ancestor add several new dimensions to our understanding of polygamy. Her series on the topic is worth reading, but perhaps only after first reading Brian Hales for a good grounding on the physical realities of polygamy (yes, I may disagree with Meg on some points, but appreciate the extensive work she has done to explore polygamy).

Here are the articles from the Millennial Star, in order, that Meg Stout has prepared. It's a remarkable example of investigative journalism, almost a murder mystery or spy novel in the making, as she digs into some of the secrets of polygamy. There are some very scary bad guys in this story--and Joseph is not one of them.

  1. "A Faithful Joseph" - Dec. 17, 2013
  2. "Why Would a Loving God Demand Polygamy?" - Dec. 23, 2013
  3. "Precursors to Joseph's Polygamy" - Dec. 30, 2013
  4. "The 1831 Revelation Regarding Plural Marriage" - Jan. 6, 2014
  5. "Of Wives and Handmaids" - Jan. 16, 2014
  6. "The Decade of Delay" - Feb. 16, 2014
  7. "Six Funerals and a Blessing" - Feb. 17, 2014
  8. "Winter of the Reluctant Virgins" - Feb. 24, 2014
  9. "Fall of the Doctor" - March 3, 2014
  10. "The Angel, the Sword, and the Heron Seduction" - March 10, 2014
  11. "Hunt in the City Beautiful" - March 17, 2014
  12. Several more! There are actually quite a few in this series. Then, finally:
  13. "God's Strange Act: A Legacy" - Aug. 11, 2014


Do Mormons still practice polygamy? To the index at the top

No, absolutely not. Those who do or who teach anything along those lines are swiftly excommunicated for being in direct conflict with the teachings of the Church. It was officially ended in 1890. Here is some background from the LDS Newsroom statement on polygamy:

Today, the practice of polygamy is strictly prohibited in the Church, as it has been for over 120 years. Polygamy--or more correctly polygyny, the marriage of more than one woman to the same man--was a part of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a half-century. The practice began during the lifetime of Joseph Smith but became publicly and widely known during the time of Brigham Young.

In 1831, Church founder Joseph Smith made a prayerful inquiry about the ancient Old Testament practice of plural marriage. This resulted in the divine instruction to reinstitute the practice as a religious principle.

Latter-day Saint converts in the 19th century had been raised in traditional, monogamous homes and struggled with the idea of a man having more than one wife. It was as foreign to them as it would be to most families today in the western world, and even Brigham Young, who was later to have many wives and children, confessed to his initial dread of the principle of plural marriage.

Subsequently, in 1890, President Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church, received what Latter-day Saints believe to be a revelation in which God withdrew the command to practice plural marriage. He issued what has come to be known as the "Manifesto," a written declaration to Church members and the public at large that stopped the practice of plural marriage.

Today Church members honor and respect the sacrifices made by those who practiced polygamy in the early days of the Church. However, the practice is banned in the Church, and no person can practice plural marriage and remain a member.

The standard doctrine of the Church is monogamy, as it always has been, as indicated in the Book of Mormon (Jacob, chapter 2): "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 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."

In other words, the standard of the Lord's people is monogamy unless the Lord reveals otherwise. Latter-day Saints believe the season the Church practiced polygamy was one of these exceptions.

Polygamous groups and individuals in and around Utah often cause confusion for casual observers and for visiting news media. The polygamists and polygamist organizations in parts of the western United States and Canada have no affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that the term "Mormon"--widely understood to be a nickname for Latter-day Saints--is sometimes incorrectly applied to them.

However, there some small groups that rejected the official changes the Church made and chose to continue living in polygamy. Some people call them "Mormons" but that is incorrect. They are in conflict with the Church as well as the law of the land. They are often called "fundamentalists" and some use the misleading name "Fundamentalist LDS." We have no association with them.

Why was polygamy introduced in the Church, when the Book of Mormon clearly teaches against it? To the index at the top

Polygamy is indeed forbidden in the Book of Mormon, except for those times when the Lord commands it (see Jacob 2:30). For reasons I don't understand, we believe that the Lord commanded that practice for a period of time from the 1840s until 1890. Yes, it was a Biblical practice for a time, as evidenced by Abraham (see Gen. 25:1-6) and Jacob (see Gen. 29 and 30). The prophet and king David had multiple wives (2 Samuel 12:7-9), as did Solomon (including wives who worshipped strange gods, which was forbidden), Gideon (Judges 8:30), and Jehoiada the priest (2 Chronicles 24:2-3). Deuteronomy 21:15-17 shows polygamy accepted as a valid practice and gives rules governing the inheritance for children of polygamous wives.

Further, there is the biblical practice called the levirate, given as a divine commandment to Moses. In this practice, if a married man dies without children, his brother must take the deceased man's wife as a wife and raise up children to ensure that the deceased man has successors (Deuteronomy 25:5-7; see also Mark 12:19-23; Matthew 22:24-28; and Gen. 38:8). This duty appears to remain in force whether the living brother is already married or not.

In spite of its biblical foundations, polygamy certainly conflicts with modern European cultural views and was offensive and difficult for many Latter-day Saints, many of whom came from Puritan stock. At its peak, perhaps 15-25% of the Church was involved in plural marriage (with around 5% or so of the men practicing it). It's a tough thing to understand and very easy to misunderstand. For example, Mark Twain assumed it was all about lust for women, and thought the Utah men were scoundrels--until he visited Utah and saw what the rough, tough pioneer women looked like. Then he praised Mormon men as being true saints. Well, there's something to that. For some, polygamy operated in some cases almost like a welfare system to provide for widows and single women among the Saints, but that was almost certainly not why the practice was introduced. The real reasons have not been given, but polygamy is obviously a way to rapidly increase a population. Whether the reasons for the practice, polygamy also apparently helped provide marriage opportunities for women to faithful males when the women otherwise might have been unable to find a suitable mate. See "Single Men in a Polygamous Society: Male Marriage Patterns in Manti, Utah" by Kathryn M. Daynes, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 24. No. 1, Spring 1998, pp. 89-111. (The link is to an 8 MB PDF file for entire edition, including Daynes' article.) This article points out that when one looks at the distribution of men and women of prime marrying age in Utah, there was often a surplus of women. And if one factors in the non-LDS segment of the population, which was overwhelmingly male, and the relative lower rate of men who received their endowments versus women, then there was a significant shortage of qualified men for temple marriage during the time when polygamy was in force. This shortage is examined using the population in the Manti area as a case study. For a related fascinating quote from Brigham Young on that topic, see my Mormanity post, "Single Men: Let's Keep Polygamy Forbidden and Illegal."

Importantly, the Book of Mormon teaches that polygamy is prohibited, unless the Lord commands it to "raise up seed unto me" (Jacob 2:27-30). Though practiced by a minority of LDS families during the time before its prohibition in 1890, the many descendants of those families have comprised the backbone of Church leadership for years, undoubtedly affected by the faith and sacrifice it required to live that difficult but revealed practice.

Of course, there have been some pretty severe charges against Joseph Smith because of polygamy. There are charges that he was a sexual deviant or adulterer, for example. However, the bottom line is that there is no credible evidence that he had sex with teenagers too young for legal marriage, or that he lived with the wives of other men practicing "sexual polyandry" (though yes, several of his wives did have living husbands when they were sealed to Joseph, but detailed analysis of the historical record leaves no evidence of adultery or sexual polyandry--these were complex situations that, in spite of how weird it all is to us today, did not result in objections from the men or the women involved, and do not justify the charges that are made today as people assume these were inappropriate sexual relationships). But at the same time, there is a lot about polygamy that I don't get and don't like, both in Joseph's day and in Old Testament times, so it's fair to struggle with this topic. However, a reasonable response to some of the most painful arguments and assumptions is found in new "wiki" entry in the FAIR Wiki by FAIRLatterDaySaints.org, "Joseph Smith's Marriages to Young Women." Another detailed resource is "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)" by Greg Smith for the FAIRBlog. That link allows you to play an MP3 file to hear Greg Smith's hour-long talk on the topic. You can also read his words at FAIRLatterDaySaints.org, complete with footnotes. He treats many aspects of this complex issue, including polyandry and young wives. Perhaps the best treatment on polyandry, where we may face the most troubling allegations about polygamy, which is the most difficult aspect of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism, is "Joseph Smith's Sexual Polyandry and the Emperor's New Clothes: On Closer Inspection, What Do We Find?" by Brian C. Hales, presented at the 2012 FAIRLDS Conference. Yes, polygamy is weird by our modern standards and downright hard to figure out, but for those trying to live that law in Joseph's day, in spite of the complex situations involved, it represented a good-faith effort to live a challenging law without violating fundamental laws like "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Assumptions of sexuality behind every sealing are unwarranted, and interpretations of historical data that point to sexual polyandry are questionable. Yes, a challenging and odd practice, but not in the ways that critics allege.

For another detailed discussion treating charges of polyandry, please see an article by Alma G. Allred," Variations on a Theme" (that's a PDF file - there is also an HTML version), which reviews a recent book by Todd Compton. Another recommended resource is the FairMormon.org compilation, Mormonism 101, especially the chapter that deals with charges against Joseph Smith (polygamy, magic, etc.). A good place to start is Joseph Smith and Polygamy at FairMormon.org.

Surprisingly, LDS women were strong supporters of it and critics were shocked when Utah women, among the first in the nation to receive voting rights, voted into office pro-polygamy men. As a result, the Federal Government during the 1870s and 1880s took away voting rights from Mormon women (and men), seized Church property, and hunted down polygamist men to jail them, even though their plural marriages had been legal when they occurred. About 1,300 LDS men who had plural wives were jailed by federal officers pursuant to the Edmunds Act of 1882. Eric Eliason discusses this era briefly in FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2000, pp. 95-112, which reviews David L. Bigler's Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1998):

In 1887, the Edmunds-Tucker Act abolished female suffrage in Utah and authorized the administration of loyalty oaths to prospective voters, jurors, and officeholders. The act stipulated compulsory attendance of witnesses at trials, overturned common law in compelling wives to testify against their husbands, and disbanded the church's fund for bringing foreign converts to Utah. The act's most devastating provision legally disincorporated the church and provided for the seizure of all its assets in excess of $50,000.

The Utah Commission gerrymandered territorial districts to ensure election victories in Salt Lake City and Ogden for the minority anti-Mormon Liberal party. In early 1890, the Supreme Court declared constitutional an Idaho law barring all Mormons from voting whether or not they believed in or practiced plural marriage. Congress neared almost certain passage of the Cullom-Strubble Bill, which was designed to disenfranchise the church's entire U.S. membership - the first and only attempt at total disenfranchisement of an entire religion in American history. Enacting the provisions of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, federal agents began confiscating property and blocking access to meetinghouses and temples.

The Utah Commission had made the LDS Church into an outlaw organization and Utah into a nearly totalitarian state under a marshal law that was hostile to the majority of the territory's inhabitants. This campaign only began to ebb when Wilford Woodruff announced a cessation of plural marriages in 1890

The jailing of many men caused hardship enough for Mormon women and children, but many women were also found "in contempt of court" and jailed for refusing to testify against their husbands. Later, in 1890, the Prophet (Wilford Woodruff) received a direct revelation that the time for the practice of polygamy had ended. It is unclear to me whether polygamy would still be going on today or not if the persecution had been less severe. Eric D. Snider, a reporter for the BYU Daily Universe, sent me the following message, quoted with permission, offering his analysis on this issue:

I was always uncomfortable with Wilford Woodruff's conveniently timely revelation that the time to stop polygamy had arrived, until I learned more about it. God didn't tell Pres. Woodruff that polygamy time was over COINCIDENTALLY just at the time that the church was about to be destroyed by the government; what God said was that because of all the persecutions, he would no longer require the saints to practice it. (See Doctrine and Covenants 124:49 - when a commandment is given, and the saints "go with all their might ...to perform that work, ... and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings.") Basically, the saints were to keep practicing polygamy until their enemies killed them, or until God told them they could stop. Mercifully, God told them they could stop. But if there had not been all those persecutions, we have no reason to assume that God would have EVER put a stop to polygamy.

On the other hand, I see polygamy as a temporary, "expendable" practice and an exception to the rule, based on:

Please don't assume that a practice is wrong or immoral because it clashes with our cultural views. There are many things that were practiced in the Bible by inspired prophets that clash with my sensibilities and cultural values - polygamy is only one example. I obviously don't understand the reasons for the practice and am not comfortable with the idea, but I believe that it was directed by the Lord for His reasons. Wish I really knew why. When this mortal test is over, I look forward to seeing the answer key.

As to the harsh response of U.S. politicians who outlawed polygamy and persecuted the Church for the practice, remember that many of them saw nothing wrong with having plural mistresses. If Mormons were simply accused of having loose morals and of sleeping around, we'd probably be receiving federal grants and would be among the most popular of religions in some parts of the country. But rather than taking advantage of multiple women, LDS polygamists were marrying them legally and making a lifelong commitment to them. That's what made the self-righteous critics so indignant.

Today, polygamy is contrary to revealed marriage practices for the Church. Those who practice it are in direct opposition to what has been revealed and come out in open defiance of the Church, for which they are quickly excommunicated. Those few people who today practice polygamy are not members of the Church, and can be viewed as enemies of it.

For more information, see my treatment to the question, "Does polygamy make Mormons a non-christian cult?" on my page about the issue of "cults." Also see "The Consistency of the LDS Church's Position Regarding Legislating Marriage" by J. Max Wilson, an essay that shows that the Church's appeal to natural law in resisting the legal attack on polygamy in the 1800s is consistent with the legal theories behind its opposition of same-sex marriage and its efforts to preserve the legal definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

And finally, to keep things in perspective, consider this quote by Jan Shipps, emeritus professor of religious studies at Purdue:

"The whole notion that polygamy is a danger to the family was incredibly important in the early 20th century. But people aren't as afraid of polygamy today as they once were, partly because serial polygamy -- by which I mean divorce and remarriage -- is the standard rather than the exception for half the people in this country."

I will admit that polygamy really bothers me. There are some pretty nasty allegations about how Joseph Smith did it. He did keep it secret for quite a while, resulting in some public denials. But some of the most troubling allegations about Joseph Smith can be addressed by considering several factors discussed in the links below, including the fact that being "sealed" to someone did not necessarily mean that intimate relations were involved. (If being "sealed" to Joseph always meant living as man and wife, we'd expect to find a lot more children from these relationships.) Some of the plural wives "sealed" to Joseph were young by today's standards, and there are a couple cases where it appears that he was sealed to someone already married. But in spite of these troubling issues around polygamy, the evidence does not point to Joseph Smith as someone out to exploit women, but rather as someone sincerely trying to follow what he felt was a religious requirement at the time. It was a complex issue, perhaps implemented poorly, and remains a difficult but temporary part of our legacy. I'm glad that it ended in 1890!

Gregory L. Smith, M.D., offers a helpful and highly informed perspective on the controversial 19th-century practice of polygamy among Latter-day Saints in his article, "Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" at FairMormon.org. If you've struggled with the issue of polygamy (struggled with it philosophically, not in practicing it, I hope!), this article helps clarify why it was kept secret for so long, why it was not about personal gratification, and why many of the anti-Mormon charges based on it are weak or even absurd. As for the charge that it was just an excuse to allow Church leaders to gain physical gratification, I find that particularly absurd. There are plenty of ways to gain the "benefits" of immorality without the insane burden of marrying one's conquests. Polygamy in the early LDS Church was a good way to get yourself killed or jailed or in all sorts of other hot water and distress (hint: how many in-laws did Brigham Young have to deal with??), and in general just doesn't make sense as merely an excuse for men having fun. To look at the lives and writings of the men and women involved, it's much more plausible to see polygamy as a painful sacrifice, even something of an Abrahamic test for the virtuous Puritanical stock that dominated Church membership rather than a moral loophole for the personal pleasure of perverts.

Yes, there were problems and mistakes and even disasters for some, and I think we're nearly all relieved to be over a century away from that practice. But it was not the sensational, demonic practice that its critics made it out to be.

Other resources on the polygamy issue:

Terryl Givens offers some practical observations on polygamy in his outstanding book, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 144):

Depictions of polygamy [in works of fiction] were also, and as predictably, wildly distorted. But then, the actual practice of plural marriage was seldom the stuff of steamy fiction. Writers of pulp fiction were unanimous in their claim that, in one author's words, "what was planned by Young for man's paradise proved woman's hell." [Mrs. W.A. King, Duncan Davidson; A Story of Polygamy (Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1928), 27.] But from Brigham Young's pronouncement that he would rather be the corpse in a funeral procession than have to accept the doctrine of polygamy [Journal of Discourses, 3:266] to the dozens of elders incarcerated in Territorial prison for their devotion to the practice to a generation of uniquely stressful marital relations for men and women alike, polygamy was far removed from the male paradise of fiction. Plural marriage was in practice a painful struggle against consciences shaped by Puritan values that most members, converts from Protestant faiths, shared. Domestic arrangements were inconvenient, fraught with jealousies, and, after the first wave of antipolygamy legislation, hampered by flight, concealment, and frequent relocations.

Also at odds with the fictional portrayal of the practice is the fact that in 1852, the same year that polygamy was publicly announced as a principle, Utah passed a divorce statute "that provided women much more control over their lives than was given by any other divorce statute of the nineteenth century, save only that of Indiana." [Louis Kern, An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopia--the Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 191.] In an 1861 address, Brigham Young stated that "when a woman becomes alienated in her feelings and affections from her husband, it is his duty to give her a bill and set her free." Even more surprisingly, he claimed that for a husband to continue cohabiting with such a wife was tantamount to fornication. [Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1986) 92-93.] Such opinions were clearly not meant merely for show. During his presidency, Young granted 1,645 divorces. [Ibid., 91. Also see Eugene E. Campbell and Bruve L. Campbell, "Divorce Among Mormon Polygamists: Extent and Explanations," Utah Historical Quarterly 46 (winter 1978): 4-23.]

Polygamy, then, proved to be a male Utopia only in the conceptions of some indignant--but apparently envious--novelistic fantasizers. Why the ferocious response by both the secular and the religious press? Such an egregious affront to Western standards of moral propriety may seem self-evidently offensive, but more than moral indignation is at work here. That such sensationalizing took place in the context of the most vehement moral outrage is neither surprising nor disingenuous. For it is precisely the transgressive nature of polygamy that excites both envy and rejection. The supposed virtue of exposing "the moral leprosy" of Utah gives at the same time opportunity to luxuriate in all the seamy details one is excoriating.

Many writers and journalists continue to luxuriate in seamy details involving past polygamy and the present polygamy of some excommunicated rebels, but it's not an accurate depiction of Mormon past or present.

Can you show any scriptures in the Bible proving that God ever condoned polygamy? To the index at the top

I received an e-mail claiming that in Old Testament times, polygamy existed but was never condoned by God. I was then asked if I could show any scripture suggesting that God have commanded it or ever condoned it. My brief response:

A relatively clear example is 2 Samuel 12:7-9, which states that God gave some of David's wives to him [women who had been the wives of Saul before]. Modern LDS scripture further clarifies the issue, in my view.

My correspondent challenged this, as follows:

In answer to your suggestion that 2 Samuel 12:7-9, states that God gave Saul's wives to David, I would like to point out that if Israel had not sinned in rejecting God as their king in the first place, Saul and David neither one would have been in position to be kings. It says God gave Saul's house and Saul's wives to David for his keeping. Saul married multiple wives and had children.....when he died, it was necessary for them to be taken care of.....not left out in the street to beg. It fell to David to take care of them as the next one to take the throne. It would have been wrong to just send them packing to fend for themselves. God is a God of mercy and He was showing mercy on the wives of Saul by giving them into David's keeping and care.

My reply:

If God absolutely disapproved of polygamy, there were plenty of ways to take care of widows other than having David marry them. But if you will feel that ensuring that women have a husband to care for them is a valid reason for God having a prophet instigate polygamy, would you then be willing to withdraw your original premise that there is no evidence that God ever condoned or commanded polygamy?

And if Abraham, a prophet of God the scriptures call the "friend of God" (2 Chron. 20:7, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23), offended God by taking plural wives, why did he maintain his status as a prophet? Why didn't Christ bother to point out that he was a fallen prophet or poor role model instead of speaking so highly of him? (See Matt. 8:11, 22:31-32; Mark 12:26; Like 16:23-30, 20:37; and John 8:39,56.) Can true prophets of God engage in polygamy and still be true prophets and praiseworthy "friends of God"? If so, could the same be true of Joseph Smith?

Further, in the law given by God to Moses in Exodus 21:10, there is a provision for a man who takes a second wife after receiving a first. This clearly condones the practice when it otherwise would have been a great place to forbid it.

The New York Times reported that a Mormon General Authority had become a doubter due to historical problems like polygamy. Is that true, and do you have advice for Mormons who doubt? To the index at the top

Yes, it's true. The arguments against Mormonism and the LDS story of a divine Restoration came to the front page of the New York Times in 2013 in an article about Mormon doubters, including a former Area Authority from Sweden, Hans Mattson, who found negative information on the Web which undermined his faith. While I'm surprised that this would be a front page story for the Times now that the election is over, I personally find it interesting an important for Mormons to understand. The story is "Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt" by Laurie Goodstein, July 20, 2013.

According to Goodstein, Brother Mattson didn't get the help or answers he felt he needed when he raised some concerns that other Swedish people had, so he began his own online investigation and soon had his faith undermined. I would say that he experienced the phenomenon that Michael Ash calls "shaken faith syndrome" in his excellent book of that name. The Times describes the troubling results of his search:

But when he discovered credible evidence that the church's founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.

This paragraph was especially painful for me to read. How can this happen? It sounds like members in Sweden had no idea that there had even been polygamy, which makes no sense. But upon further investigation, I learned that it was the details of polygamy and other issues that shook Brother Mattson more than merely discovering that there was polygamy. For the record, by the way, Church materials do recognize that polygamy used to exist, although I can understand that the Church is not keen to bring that up a lot. Some discussion, for example, occurs on the Mormon Newsroom site of the Church which has a page on polygamy, explaining that it was introduced in 1831. It is mentioned in the popular Church booklet, Our Heritage (PDF file) as well as the Doctrine and Covenants Sunday School manual (PDF) in treating Section 132. President Hinckley fielded some questions about polygamy in his famous Sept. 1998 interview on Larry King Live, and he again mentioned polygamy in his well-known October 1998 General Conference address, "What Are People Asking About Us?" He reminds us that the Church has stopped practicing polygamy for over a century, with more detail in the Larry King interview.

Polygamy is certainly a sensitive subject that we have perhaps been too shy to address with our own members.  Without some basic "inoculation" and frank discussion, as in Michael Ash's Shaken Faith Syndrome, we may have left too many prone to a shaken faith when their mistaken vision of Joseph as a monogamist is toppled with a long queue of wives, including some controversial marriages that require some careful consideration to sort through the messy and troubling issues. Resources for dealing with some of the most troubling and puzzling aspects of polygamy include Greg Smith's 2009 article, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask)" and other information at FAIRLDS, including the FAIRMormon Wiki on polygamy and other information at FAIRLDS, including the FairMormon Wiki on polygamy and their material on the issue of polyandry, which I think was one of the main topics troubling some of the Swedish Saints contributing to Brother Mattson's crisis of faith. Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling also confronts many of the troubling issues of polygamy and other non-ideal aspects of Church history and reminds us that a scholar can dig into the controversies and maintain a vibrant faith.

What, a scholar can dig into the most troubling details and not lose their faith? How? Actually, the data when looked at in detail and with carefully examined assumptions do not support polygamy as a tool for taking sexual liberties. Many of the marriages were sealings aimed at the next life, not directed to cohabitation in this life. Some cohabitation occurred, but there are surprisingly few children that can be attributed to Joseph's polygamy. It really wasn't all about sex. Getting into the details results in a variety of ameliorating factors that soften the shock of polygamy. But it's still troubling and hard for me to figure out.

Some Thoughts for Those Struggling with Doubt

Regardless of how Hans Mattson and other Saints may have been blindsided by some of the controversies of our past, including polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, or by challenges to our scriptures, such as attacks on the Book of Abraham, there are some things I'd like to say to them and to any of you struggling with related doubts.

First, know that you are not alone in your concerns. There are challenges to our faith and misconceptions that many of us had for years that need correction, and sometimes this updating can be painful. Some simple assumptions that seemed OK in the past are not accurate and not even doctrinal, such as the common old assumption that the Book of Mormon describes all the ancient origins of all Native Americans, or the idea that the limitation on the priesthood for many (but not all) blacks must have been a doctrinal matter based on some official revelation (there is no evidence of such a revelation being given).

Second, know that there are some helpful answers and new perspectives that can strengthen your faith as your grapple with these challenges. Resources such as FairMormon.org, the Maxwell Institute, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, and BlackLDS.org can supplement the vast resources at ChurchofJesusChrist.org and help clarify some of the issues. None of that is going to make the controversy of polygamy disappear, but you can see that many faithful LDS people have dealt with these issues in various ways and found their faith still intact. I take on some of the controversies also in my LDSFAQ area.

Third, in weighing Mormonism, don't just add the controversies of history to the balance. There growing evidences for the Book of Mormon need to be considered. The big picture of the broad answers that the revelations of the Restoration provide need to be considered, including their marvelous fit into the ancient world, even down to details such as modern discoveries on ancient covenant patterns which we find beautifully present in the Book of Mormon and the restored LDS Temple. I discuss my journey in some of these areas on my LDSFAQ pages such as my pages on the Book of Abraham, my pages on Book of Mormon Evidences, and on my Mormanity blog.

There is room for doubt and a need for all of us to grapple with doubt. But know that there is still plenty of room for faith and plenty of room for rejoicing in the majesty of the Restored Gospel, including some remarkable evidences for the Restoration that the Lord has allowed to come our way. There is much to weigh and many perhaps overlooked or not yet noticed treasures that can swing the balance to the side of strengthened, not shattered faith.

To Hans and all others in the process of weighing Mormonism, I would encourage you to step back and see the bigger picture and then fairly consider the many positives at the same time as we update our perspectives on the trouble spots. While what really happened in history is rarely clear and easily misjudged, we can more easily judge what happens in our lives as we live the Gospel and experiment with the Word. There is a power, joy, and indeed, even intellectual fulfillment that comes with steady service and study, even after facing some of the disappointments that come when some unfounded assumptions we long held require correction.

Finally, for those who have friends or loves ones experiencing shaken faith, be patient and loving, even if (or perhaps especially if) they leave the Church. While the issues they are facing may not trouble you, perhaps because you haven't faced them or perhaps because you have already moved past them or perhaps because your have a firm testimony based on other factors, do not discount the severity of the challenge your friends or family may be facing.

Do not assume that the real issue is some hidden moral sin or being offended by some trivial "spilt milk" issue. That is often not a fair comparison to the real issues and real pain that doubters who want to be believers can face. Love them, help them find useful resources if they wish, do not just brush off their concerns (at least put them in contact with some of the LDS folks who might have answers or at least thoughtful perspectives to share), and maintain your friendship even if they leave the Church. Friendships and family relationships are precious and we should try to not let religion get in the way when religious differences arise. Our faith should strengthen our ability to be good friends and family members, even when others don't share our views. Yes, I know that's easy to say but often hard to do, especially when a doubter feels a need to spread the doubts and fight against the Church. But let's do the best we can to follow Christ in these challenges and be who we are supposed to be.

We do not need to be the judge, just the friends and perhaps helpers, when help is wanted, of those who doubt. But may those doubters find their faith again and come home. There are many good reasons to come home again, and many treasures to weigh on the side of faith.

Did Joseph Smith really practice polyandry?? To the index at the top

Yes. Polyandry, the practice of a woman having two or more husbands, fits a number of cases in Joseph's life where a woman he was sealed to already had a husband. Polyandry is perhaps the most confusing and troubling aspect of polygamy, especially if we make the assumption that sexuality was involved. Fortunately, that assumption may be unwarranted, based on careful review of the evidence for each of these cases. The evidence, though, is complex and supports multiple conclusions. See Greg L. Smith's chapter on polyandry in his book about polygamy at FAIRMormon.org. There he examines the evidence for each of the women in Joseph's polyandrous marriages. He offers an interesting hypothesis for why these sealings took place:

A hypothesis--why so many early polyandrous marriages?

Joseph's polyandry strikes us as a strange practice, but few have noted some of the strangest elements. Interestingly, after Joseph's resumption of plural marriage in April 1841, all of his marriages (with one exception) were polyandrous until 29 June 1842. The lone exception is the marriage to his dead brother's widow. Furthermore, of his eleven polyandrous marriages, all but two occurred before July 1843.

This early prominence, even predominance, of polyandry is counter-intuitive. Polyandrous marriages would seem to be the most risky for Joseph and his wives. With polyandry, Emma's reaction to the marriages would be the least of Joseph's worries. Unlike being sealed to single women, polyandrous sealings introduced an additional dangerous variable: the first husband! In teaching and practicing polyandry, Joseph ran the significant risk of a jealous husband learning of his arrangement with the wife, and exposing the explosive secret in hostile terms. Such a husband might also choose to threaten Joseph physically for wrongs to his wife's--and his own--honor.

The risk to Joseph is heightened when we appreciate that a single woman had no competing loyalties, while a polyandrous wife almost always had children and a husband to whom she was bound by love and loyalty. Finally, since a key justification for Mormon polygamy was the biblical model, polyandry would also have been the most difficult form to justify to potential initiates, since there is no biblical polyandry.

Yet when we examine Joseph's polyandrous marriages, none of these problems seem to surface. All of the men--member or non-member--were close friends of Joseph's, and remained so until his death. No wife seems to have second thoughts; none tearfully confessed all to her unsuspecting husband or Nauvoo society.

This common-sense analysis hinges, however, on the question of marital intimacy. If polyandrous sealings were not expected to involve sexual intimacy, then they were much less challenging for all involved--including Joseph and Emma. Emma would be far less troubled by a polyandrous marriage intended to seal Joseph to beloved friends than a marriage to single women living in her home. Joseph's natural--and, I suspect, profound--desire to keep the Lord's commandments and protect Emma's feelings would have been satisfied.

If the first husband was aware of the sealings, the faithful Saints would have been untroubled by a relationship which they saw as primarily binding their family to Joseph's, while non-member husbands would have seen it as a purely religious rite with a man for whom they retained great respect and affection.

If polyandrous polygamy was generally free of the prospect of sexual intimacy and was simply a way of binding families together or blessing people in the next life somehow, then these sealings, free of cohabitation, present much less of a "yuck factor." Two of the marriages may also have been at a time when the woman was estranged from her husband or considered herself divorced. In any case, the fact that all of the husbands were and remained good friends with Joseph suggests that these relationships were probably not what we think when tend to assume when we first learn of Joseph marrying wives who already had husbands.

A recent publication gives an important summary of some of the issues in polyandry. See Brian C. Hales, "The Case of the Missing Commentary," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 29 (2018): 197-218. Here is an excerpt:

When I first started studying polyandry around 2009, virtually every published author who had addressed Mormon polygamy in any depth assured his or her audience that Joseph Smith practiced polyandry. As I researched the historical documentation surrounding the topic, I soon recognized that there is no unambiguous evidence to support it. I wondered why these accomplished writers would be so secure in their conclusions. Several years passed before I realized a possible connection. In their books and articles, these authors portray Joseph Smith as a hypocrite and an adulterer. In their chapters and essays, they may not openly tell their readers or speak critically, but their descriptions of his behavior portray him as contradicting biblical teachings and violating his own instructions in his plural marriage activities.

Evidently for this set of authors, believing that Joseph simply added polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands) to polygyny (one man with multiple wives) didn't take much convincing. Their conclusions were, in my opinion, not based on a critical analysis of the pertinent historical data.

Predictably, observers who already believe Joseph was driven by libido may conclude (without requiring compelling supportive evidence) that he augmented polygyny with polyandry. It seems that in their eyes, Joseph-the-fraud might be expected to behave that way. Because most non-Mormons embrace this perspective by default, it is easy to see how consensus rather than documentation could create and perpetuate social momentum in support of this position. Historical Unreality?

It seems that reconstructions that depict Joseph Smith as a polyandrist contain an element of unreality regarding the expected reactions of 1840s members, nonmembers, and even detractors. Modern historians have described how Joseph struggled to introduce polygyny, encountering significant pushback from his wife Emma, several leaders, and other potential plural wives, not to mention the onslaught of condemnations from critics. Ironically, those same writers often portray Joseph as introducing polyandry -- a much more controversial practice -- without any identifiable additional challenges.

It seems Joseph would have faced obstacles to polyandry that didn't exist for polygyny. The Old Testament describes Abraham (Genesis 16:1-6) and Jacob (Genesis 29:30) as engaging in plural marriages. In contrast, polyandry is condemned as "adultery":

For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. (Romans 7:2-3.)

Likewise, all known references to polyandry by early Church leaders and members also condemn it. Brigham Young asked in 1852, "What do you think of a woman having more husbands than one?" and then answered, "This is not known to the law." Six years later Orson Pratt instructed: "God has strictly forbidden, in this Bible, plurality of husbands, and proclaimed against it in his law." Belinda Marden Pratt wrote in 1854: "Why not a plurality of husbands as well as a plurality of wives? To which I reply: 1st God has never commanded or sanctioned a plurality of husbands." On October 8, 1869, Apostle George A. Smith taught that "a plurality of husbands is wrong." His wife, Bathsheba Smith, was asked in 1892 if it would "be a violation of the laws of the church for one woman to have two husbands living at the same time." She replied: "I think it would." These statements do not mean that Joseph Smith did not practice polyandry, they just indicate that he probably could not have done it effortlessly, as some polygamy authors portray.

Here it should be pointed out that it is impossible to prove a negative. The lack of evidence is not the evidence of lack. So no matter what historical documentation is presented to indicate that Joseph did not engage in true polyandry, proof will not be achieved. Despite such limitations, the idea that verse 41 describes dual wives, as TPMR suggests, would be strengthened by providing explanations for the following observations:

So yes, there were women who were married to someone else and also sealed to Joseph Smith, but no evidence that this was involved intimacy with two men during that phase. It's not quite as scandalous as some want to make it out to be. Remember, polygamy along was trouble enough and evoked intense opposition from many fronts. If there was also polyandry involving more than just being sealed to Joseph, the opposition would have been far more intense, yet there is no evidence of the outrage and concern that would be expected. That evidence strongly suggests that this was not a case of being truly married as man and wife to two men at once.

What can we learn from the children of Joseph's polygamous marriages? To the index at the top

Not much. There is scant solid evidence that children came from these polygamous marriages. It's possible that no children resulted, or perhaps just one or two. Emma had a large number of children, so Joseph certainly wasn't infertile. To me, the general lack of children from these marriages suggest that sexuality was not what polygamy was all about. See Greg L. Smith's chapter on the children of polygamous marriages for details.

Didn't one polyandrous wife state she didn't know if Joseph or her first husband was the father of her son? Yuck! Isn't that plain old adultery? To the index at the top

It sure sounds like it, until you look at the origins of this claim. The following excerpt from Greg L. Smith's chapter on the children of polygamous marriages provides details:

John Hyrum Buell, Son of Prescinda Huntington Buell

Bachman mentions a "seventh child" of Prescinda's, likely John Hyrum Buell, for whom the timeline would better accommodate conception by Joseph Smith. There is no other evidence for Joseph's paternity, however, save Ettie V. Smith's account in the anti-Mormon Fifteen Years Among the Mormons (1859), which claimed that Prescinda said she did not know whether Joseph or her first husband was John Hyrum's father.[75] As Compton notes, such an admission is implausible, given the mores of the time.[76]

Besides being implausible, Ettie gets virtually every other detail wrong--she insists that William Law, Robert Foster, and Henry Jacobs had all been sent on missions, only to return and find their wives being courted by Joseph. Ettie then has them establish the Expositor.[77] While Law and Foster were involved with the Expositor, they were not sent on missions, and their wives did not charge that Joseph had propositioned them. Jacobs had served missions, but was present during Joseph's sealing to his wife, and did not object (see Chapter 9). Jacobs was a faithful saint unconnected to the Expositor.

Even the anti-Mormon Fanny Stenhouse considered Ettie Smith to be a writer who "so mixed up fiction with what was true, that it was difficult to determine where one ended and the other began,"[78] and a good example of how "the autobiographies of supposed Mormon women were [as] unreliable"[79] as other Gentile accounts, given her tendency to "mingl[e] facts and fiction" "in a startling and sensational manner."[80]

Brodie herself makes no mention of John Hyrum as a potential child (and carelessly misreads Ettie Smith's remarks as referring to Oliver, not John Hyrum). No other historian has even mentioned this child, much less argued that Buell was not the father.

So I think this sensational claim has no reliable basis. But it is still commonly repeated.

Further Reading To the index at the top


Greg L. Smith's website, Joseph Smith's Polygamy--one of the best researched sources of information on polygamy and its many controversies.

Initiation of Plural Marriage

"Single Men: Let's Keep Polygamy Forbidden and Illegal" - post at Mormanity discussing one possible reason for polygamy, as explained by Brigham Young: compensating for the tendency of men not to marry.

"DNA Helps Solve a Historical Question about Joseph Smith" by Allen Wyatt on the Interpreter Foundation Blog. Allen discusses a DNA study published in 2019, "Resolving a 150-year-old paternity case in Mormon history using DTC autosomal DNA testing of distant relatives," which shows that Joseph Smith was not the biological father of Josephine Lyons, often claimed to be a clear case of Joseph fathering a child from a polygamous or polyandrous marriage.

Comments for this page (via Facebook) To the index at the top

Curator: Jeff Lindsay Contact:
Creation Date: July 27, 2013
Last Updated: Nov. 2, 2019
URL: "https://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/polygamy.html"