Picturing polygamists

There was a Slate piece I wanted to look at last week but it didn’t make the cut. Then I came across this Salt Lake Tribune story that reminded me about it.

Religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote about how Mormons continue to struggle with a public relations problem when it comes to a practice they officially discontinued over 100 years ago. Here’s her lede:

Polygamy still clings to the LDS Church’s image — even though the Utah-based faith abandoned the practice more than a century ago.

It was the No. 1 negative quality cited by 28 percent of respondents in a national Salt Lake Tribune poll who were “uncomfortable” with voting for a Mormon for U.S. president.

She looks into why that might be:

It may simply be a problem of branding, said Kathleen Flake, who teaches American religious history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“Mormonism’s 19th-century brand was polygamy, and no other attribute has had the power to replace it,” Flake wrote in an email. “In similar fashion, some still think of it as ‘the American Church,’ even though today the majority of its members live outside the United States. Even in the 19th century, however, polygamy was the catch-all for a variety of things about Mormonism that Americans, religious and otherwise, did not like: new scripture, prophets, priesthood government, for example. Mormons were — and apparently still are — believed to be just too different. Not surprisingly, when asked to identify Mormon difference the old catch-all brand comes up.”

LDS public-affairs director Michael Otterson is also quoted:

“We feel we are making really good headway on the polygamy issue,” Otterson told The Tribune. “We’ve all got institutional memories where journalists [and headline writers] would frequently make reference to ‘Mormon polygamists’ when talking about the FLDS [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints].”

OK, that may be. But I just noticed an example of journalists failing in this regard.

Slate ran a story on Dec. 14 headlined “What’s the Difference Between a Religion and a Cult? And where does Mormonism fit in?” It’s a totally fine brief piece that explains the term, how it’s been used and why. But it of course begins with an anecdote about how someone from a rival campaign staff was fired after he used the term to describe Mitt Romney’s Mormonism.

And what picture illustrated this piece from Dec. 14 until the last time I checked it on Dec. 18? A nice big picture of Warren Jeffs, the most famous polygamist in the country.

And it’s not like the article was discussing whether the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were a cult or anything. It didn’t.

Now, as I went to write this piece, I see that they have changed the picture to one of Romney. No note accompanies the change.

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  • Mike O.

    I completely agree with this post. The article was focusing on mainstream Mormonism so it should have had a picture of a mainstream Mormon representative from the start. And I’m someone who is not a fan of LDS, but a news site has to be fair with the parties it’s discussing.

    On a side note, I want to endorse the book shown above. It’s a very interesting insight into a culture most don’t see. I’m currently reading her following up book, “Triumph”. Obviously it’s not as gripping as it details her work testifying to Congress and working with law enforcement after a raid on the compound she escaped from.

  • carl

    If Mormonism is still tagged with the label ‘polygamy’ perhaps it’s because of the ambiguous relationship Mormonism holds with the practice. After all, the major founding fathers of Mormonism were all polygamous and their early writings are filled with defenses of the practice. Polygamy wasn’t set aside for doctrinal reasons but for pragmatic reasons. The Mormon church repudiated polygamy only because Utah wasn’t going to become a state so long as Mormonism still advocated the practice. Conveniently enough, a prophesy was received allowing polygamy to be set aside, and Utah was granted statehood. One has to wonder if polygamy will return to SLC Mormonism when the legal restrictions on it are cast aside. The theological justifications for it are all still in place. Doctrine & Covenant 132 still exists as Mormon scripture. I can’t blame journalists for making the connection when the connection is still there just below the surface.

    As an aside, I found the book by Carolyn Jessop to be a valuable but difficult read. I could only manage about 30 pages at a time. The reader who has daughters (and I have only daughters) will find it hard not to project his own children into the circumstances of the story.


  • http://www.hotpresspublishing.com/zoemurdock/ Zoe Murdock

    The LDS Church is living with its past, that’s all. The leadership wants to play down the church’s connection to polygamy, but it was a “fundamental” doctrine in its early days, and even in its not so early days. It is difficult for a church, especially a church that purports to receive direct guidance from God, to change its mind about fundamental doctrine. I mean, if God said something was right and necessary in the past, how can it not be right and necessary now. But the LDS church is trying to modernize.

    The problem is, there are still some of us around who remember when polygamy was “not practiced,” but was still an important doctrine that just had to be set aside for a while. My father was caught in that in between zone. His grandfather had three wives, and my father was never quite sure God wanted the law of polygamy to be rescinded. I’ve written a book about that in between zone based on my experience with my father. It explains, or rather shows, the confusion that exists between the fundamentalist Mormons like the FLDS and the mainstream Mormons. As long as that confusion still exists in the minds of some LDS, how can they hope to put down the confusion that exists in the minds of people outside the church. Maybe in a hundred years the church can escape their past.

    I also wrote an article for Ms. Magazine which sheds some light on the LDS/FLDS confusion. Here’s a link if you’re interested:


    Zoe Murdock

  • Harold

    “One has to wonder if polygamy will return to SLC Mormonism when the legal restrictions on it are cast aside. The theological justifications for it are all still in place. Doctrine & Covenant 132 still exists as Mormon scripture.” From what I have read, polygamy resumes in the next life. Eg, a Mormon man “sealed” to a wife who dies can then be “sealed” to another woman and both will be his wives in the next world.

  • Harold

    Since it’s Christmas…the recent question, Are Mormons Christians? is the wrong question. Since Joseph Smith was commanded to re-found, restore –not reform–a Church to replace what was totally lost in the Great Apostasy…new priesthood, new sacraments, new scriptures, etc. it is obvious that for him, the rest of the “Christian” world was NOT Christian. So the current query should be, Are Non-Mormons Christians?

  • northcoast

    LDS Church members have my sympathy with respect to the polygamy issue. Popular wisdom loves a scandal. Just try to straighten people out on Henry VIII, Martin Luther, or even a 21st century State of the Union Address.

  • carl jacobs

    Mormonism can never truly shed polygamy because polygamy is tied to the prophesies of Joseph Smith, and Mormonism rests completely upon the credibility of his prophesies. To repudiate polygamy as evil would be to fatally undermine Smith’s status as a prophet, and thus the whole foundation of Mormonism itself. The LDS would prefer polygamy be considered (and then forgotten) as a sort of ‘dispensation for a time’ but that is too convenient by half. That is certainly not how either Smith or Brigham Young saw the practice.

    Here is President Wilford Woodruff defending the Manifesto that set aside plural marriage:

    Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue—to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead?


    This is not the language of changed doctrine. It is the language of legal accommodation. When the legal accommodation is no longer necessary, then what is the reason to resist the words of the Prophet?

    Mormon women constitute the actual bulwark against the reinstatement of polygamy. Will they suffer its return? If not, then a convenient fiction is set in place. But that is all it is – a convenient fiction. Mormonism was, is, and always will be formally polygamous. A leopard cannot change its spots.


  • Scott W

    I’m not sure people still consider Slate journalism, do they? I think they joined the propaganda parade some time ago – particular on matters of religion.

  • MrNirom

    I don’t believe Mormons are ashamed of polygamy.. or that it was practiced at one time. What they are opposed to is the fact that the practice was indeed stopped because of pressure from the United States Government to confiscate their temples, therefore stopping all the ordinances that were performed in them.. putting their leaders and men in prison.. therefore splitting up families. Mormon men were put in prison just for visiting the home of their wives and children. They were watched very closely by Government agents where many men could not even attend birthday parties of their own children if they were from another marriage other than their first one.

    It certainly was not because Utah wanted to become a state which is what our detractors have been saying trying to minimize the importance of Polygamy ordained by God as opposed to needing and wanting statehood above all else.

    Mormons also understood that as the church went Global.. and membership in the church became world wide.. that polygamy would be “outlawed” almost everywhere. Polygamy was a temporary practice in these last days and had its importance to test the saints to see if they would do whatsoever the Lord asked them to do. Polygamy is NOT an easy thing to do.. for either man or woman.

    But because Mormons did give it up.. and it has not been practiced for 120 years.. how can people of this day and age.. and of this generation be held at fault in todays world about something that happened before any of them were born?

    And then to have a religion that closely resembles ours, be breaking the current law of the land, and have others accuse us of still practicing an illegal law of the land is upsetting. It has nothing to do with feeling that polygamy is evil.. as it is not. It is just not an accepted social practice in today’s society and when one does not practice it.. does not like to be accused of doing so. So we certainly do not want to “shed” polygamy from our past.. just don’t say we are still doing it when we are not.

    And of course we are speaking about being married to more than one woman who is living. For according to our faith.. when we get married in the temple.. it is for time and all eternity and a bill of divorcement is not given at death as in all the other religions upon the earth.

  • Mollie

    Not that this hasn’t all been quite interesting but please keep comments focused on journalism.

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    Any reporter who imagines that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is eager for polygamy to be legalized so that it can resume the practice should read Joseph Walker’s piece in the Deseret Morning News, August 6, 2011. “Recent events highlight confusion of polygamy: A practice that ended more than 120 years ago still misunderstood.” http://bit.ly/vhHjIS

    Walker reports on a paper presented by BYU political scientist Valerie Hudson, who examines key passages in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants to conclude that Polygamy is the exception to God’s usual law of monogamy. Hudson speaks neither for BYU nor for the Church, but I find her arguments convincing and hope that alert reporters in the mainstream press will pick up on them. She points out that the key passage in the Doctrine and Covenants that commands the practice of polygamy compares it to God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Both commands went contrary to all that the recipients had believed to that point and required extraordinary sacrifice to obey.

    Hudson said, “Even if polygamy were to be legalized in the United States, the church would still excommunicate those who practice polygamy without being commanded by the Lord. Those who desire to practice polygamy in times when God has not commanded it are in spiritual chaos. That desire would be analogous to Abraham, after hearing the message of the angel and seeing the ram in the thicket, proceeding to sacrifice Isaac anyway as a testimony of his faithfulness to God. We can only surmise that from God’s point of view, such an act would constitute anything but a testimony of faithfulness.”

    Six of my eight great-grandparents made the great sacrifice to practice polygamy, and I thank them for my existence. (The other two weren’t Mormons). But I am equally thankful that when the Lord rescinded the commandment through his living prophet, each of them again had sufficient faith to obey.

    A Pulitzer Prize should go to the first mainstream reporter who reveals that Mormon polygamy was not about sex, but about sacrifice.

    Tracy Hall Jr

  • MrNirom


    There are many things we can say about how unfair some reporters are. They either write and print what they feel… or.. write and print what they are told to.

    It never ceases to amaze me that 99 times out of 100.. they get it wrong! And very rarely are they ever “around” to correct their errors.

    The only defense we have is when the comments are turned on… is to disagree with what has been said.. and try to correct the mistake by explaining our position on the subject.

    Before I married my wife.. she was very Anti Mormon. Only because the churches she belonged to inundated her with anti Mormon material and videos.

    My only method to combat what she believed to be true was to continually say.. “We don’t believe that.” or “That is not what we believe.” or “They have it wrong.”

    Even after she joined the Church.. she still found her friends trying to tell her what is was that she believed. Like most members of the Church.. we have to keep straighting people out by telling them what it is that we do believe.. over and over and over again. Maybe one day they will get tired of listening to people who are not of our faith, and actually ask us the questions they have on their mind.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The journalism issue is not pinning polygamy on the LDS, but confusing the LDS with the FLDS.

    On a semi-journalism note: the comments by Mormons on this site have been extremely helpful to me. I’ a Catholic who profoundly disagrees with Mormon theology, but see that many of the same epithets (including “cult”) get thrown at both groups, and that Mormons also have much more theological diversity than I ever knew. That includes the fact that members of the LDS, like members of the Catholic Church, adhere to doctrine and practice in varying degrees. Surprise, surprise.

    As a Catholic, I certainly bear a witness different than a Mormon (or some Protestants), but I at least have a better idea of what the Mormon witness actually is, rather than only what some people say it is. For that I thank those who bear that witness, and the forbearance of the GetReligionistas who sometimes let things go beyond strict journalism. Doing so, I think, permits us lay folk to read journalism accounts with a more discerning eye.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Passing By,

    Yes, I thought some of the comments were helpful for a journalistic understanding. For instance, I think I might have been too cut-and-dry about the general error of linking polygamy and Mormonism.

    But if comments have nothing to do with journalism, that’s where it’s a problem.

  • MrNirom


    Let me say this. When the comments are turned on.. they too also become a part of the journalism. We can easily respond to what has been written by the author.. but we also have to respond to those who comment and get it wrong.

    I know that there are many people who read the article and the comments and never comment themselves. If we did not comment on the comments being made.. especially when it is dead wrong.. we would be allowing the lie to continue.

  • Joe

    Oddly, many people blame the Church of Jesus Christ for proposition 08, which limits marriage to one man and one woman, and, in almost the same breath, they claim that LDS are still upset that the laws prevent them practicing polygamy. The Book of Mormon is certainly something that Mormons believe (this is why they call us Mormons) and yet, I rarely find non-LDS quoting what it says about polygamy. So, before you believe what the anti-Mormons tell you (these are people similar to racists, anti-Semites, etc who spend their days hating, but anti-Mormons often do so under the banner of religion or activism)check the Book of Mormon.

    Jacob 2:27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any aman among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;

    30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up aseed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.

    verse thirty tells us that it is ok sometimes, but not ideal. It was good in Brigham Young’s day, and Abraham’s, and Joseph Smiths, but not now, and probably never again. Those times have passed.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen

    Curious that Mormons get tagged with polygamy when it was prevalent in Jewish and Christian history. Abraham had a wife and a concubine, Jacob had two of each, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines and David had 8 named wives and 10-14 other partners. Haven’t seen an explicit ban on the practice in the scriptures of either faith, although it doesn’t appear to have been the norm. And while Ashkenazic Jews banned polygamy a thousand years ago, it did not die out among the Sephardim who have recently been agitating for its reinstatement in the State of Israel.

    (As an aside,while googling I found an article I had written on the connection between Logos and Shekeniah reproduced on a non-Mormon derivative German Christian polygamist site, although I hasten to add the article had nothing to do with multiple marriage.)

    Joseph Smith didn’t make it up out of whole cloth, but we don’t associate it with Christian or Jewish practice today.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Mollie -

    My comment was personal and specific to the Mormon threads.

    I’m generally quite content to see this site stay close to journalism issues. In the early days of the internet, I argued contentious issues, and, honestly, have little interest in that anymore. Life’s too short.

    Best wishes for the remaining 11 days of Christmas and for a happy, prosperous 2012.

  • sari

    Those were my thoughts as well. Jewish practice reflected the mores of their neighbors, the reason why R. Gershom banned polygyny for Ashkenazim c. 1000 (with a few exceptions), while the Sephardim continued the practice. You won’t hear much about them because a) many people don’t know their Bible and b) few people are knowledgeable about Jewish history or contemporary culture. In fact, the edict expired many years ago, but the custom is so entrenched that it functions like a law. I would expect that the daughters of Israeli Sephardim, far more assimilated than their parents, will be in no rush to marry into a polygynous relationship.

    Anyway, the Church of LDS would benefit from reporters, religion and otherwise, who understood the distinction between the mainstream church and splinter sects, like FLDS.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The LDS Church abandoned polygamy shortly after the Supreme Court upheld the Idaho Test Oath which allowed the government of Idaho to ban from voting anyone who was a member of a religion that supported polygamy. The United States government was threatening to seize all the property of the LDS Church, including the sacred temples, and thousands of Mormon men were serving time in prison for “unlawful cohabitation”.

    To say the change in policy was about seeking Utah statehood is just to ignore reality. Men were being hounded by federal authorities and going to prison for this. You are seriously misrepresenting what was at stake.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Passing By,
    Thankyou for your comments.

    On the issue of confusing LDS and FLDS I think you have a good point. I wonder if the quote I posted from “Jews for the Church of Latter-day Saints” involved this confusion.

    Things get even worse because the things people really object to in the case of Warren Jeffs and his associates, arranged marriages involving girls under the age of 15 do not quite play out in 19th century polygamy for many reasons. Thomas G. Alexander, a leading historian of Mormonism and polygamy, argues that even in cases where Mormon men took wives under the age of 18 they in general did not have sexual relations until the age of 18. Beyond that Jeffs methods of commanding who marries who and reasigning wives were his ideas, and not even general among polygamist groups that claim to follow the directions of Joseph Smith.

    The other issue is that in 1850 there were regular cases of 35 year old men marrying 15 year olds.

    I would say the media feeds this problem by playing up the supposed connection of people who claim to follow Joseph Smith and polygamy, while consistently ignoring the Muslims, Hmongs and other groups in the United States who practice polygamy. The only speaker that BYU has had this century who favored decriminalizing polygamy was an African-American (non-immigrant) Muslim women who spoke of polygamy in the context of non-immigrant African American Muslims. In some ways I am surprised they let her speak, even though it was at a forum sponsored by the school’s International Studies Center in a small hall on campus and the speaker seemed so out of touch with reality she talked about giving legal status to polygamist marriages, ignoring entirely that currently they constitute criminal acts that could get the men thrown in jail, it was still a bold brush with the subject, even if the talk was about how non-immigrant African-American Muslims practice polygamy and only had a very limited discussion of policy, and was clearly not in any way an expression of the views of anyone at the school, but part of a braod set of forums that discuss various issues.

    In some ways the breaks between the FLDS and the law are inherently culture clashes on the same level as the breaks between the Amish and the law.

    It might be a bias, but at least to me it seems that when the media covers polygamy by Muslims they treat it in a much more favorable light then if it is the FLDS. Even when it is the NYT uncovering that Muslim men in their 30s are taking 15 year old second wives in Ivory Coast and then bringing them to NYC, there is not a general call for state action. A leading academic in NYC actually had the audacity to come to Utah and denounce the attorney general there for not prosecuting all polygamists, even though Utah has put polygamists behind bars for underaged marriages while New York has not yet done such.

    People this journalists ignore the legacy of the Short Creek Raid. From 1910 to 1955 Utah and surrounding states sent many, many men to jail for polygamy. The end result was bitterness towards the state, distrust, and continuation of the practice by those who had gone to jail.

    It is hard to justify putting a men in jail because he acknowledges and supports his wives, while men who have children on the side who they abandon are not considered criminals. I can also see the argument that polygamy is an egregious endorsement of a different social order, but there is clearly different treatment.

    The most anti-polygamy learning I have ever recieved was as a student at Brigham Young University. As a student at Wayne State University studying polygamy in Africa all we heard was how good it was, reading about all the benefits of polygamy. As a student at Eastern Michigan University learning about polygamy among Native Americans, the issue was just ignored. At BYU we read books that claimed that polygamy was a sign of male control, while at the other universities we read books that insist that this is a false notion.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Here is an article on Jewish polygamy in Israel http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4100434,00.html

    Well, OK the article is on how some people claim they are promoting it, and one rabbi claims to be about to enter it and claims a few other men have already done so.

    Other things I read suggest that some of the Yemanite Jewish immigrants to Israel were polygamists, but that the practice is rare among those who were born in Israel if not non-existent.

  • http://www.thesecondadam.com Wayne Sutton

    elijahlist and other prophetic ezines speak alot about love and the grace of God, yet I see more people focus on the “bad side” of religion… where is the love? Love covers a multitude of sin.

  • Joe

    Excellent source on this is Samuel W Taylor’s book “The Kingdom or Nothing.” Utah statehood has a huge issue, for reasons moderns find hard to appreciate. IT was not the ONLY reason oolugamy was dropped, but it was a pressing one. Read up on the Reed Smoot confirmation hearings. Very enlightening.