Patheos answers the question:

Do ‘Mormons’ Still Practice Polygamy?

The short answer is “No,” members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints (or “Mormons”) do not practice polygamy (or “plural marriage,” as it has sometimes been called). Indeed, to do so today would result in excommunication from the Church—as “Latter-day Saints believe that the marriage of one man and one woman is the Lord’s standing law of marriage.”

That being said, it is true that a minimal number of members (between the 1840s and the year 1890) engaged in the practice (for religious reasons). estimates that “only a tiny minority of Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage… Best estimates suggest that men with two or more wives made up only 5 to 15 percent of the population of most LDS communities.” And “two-thirds of” men who practiced the principle “had only two wives.” Statistics show that the “percentage of those involved in plural marriage steadily declined over the…decades” following the public announcement of the practice and its 1850s peak.

Why did the early "Mormons" practice polygamy?

Joseph Smith, the “Prophet of the Restoration” and first President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, took quite literally the words of the ancient Apostle Peter, who prophesied that “Jesus Christ…must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:21 NRSV). This “restoration of all things” (King James Version) required, in Joseph’s understanding, a restoration of all biblical doctrines and practices, including plural marriage (or polygamy)—which the Bible spoke of as having been practiced by various patriarchs and prophets of old (e.g., Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.).

Though we know that certain members of the Church (in the 1840s) were polygamists, it was not until 1852 that the principle was practiced openly. One reason for the “secrecy” of the practice (in the Church’s early days) is highlighted by the Church itself: “Polygamy had been permitted for millennia in many cultures and religions, but, with few exceptions, it was rejected in Western cultures.” Thus, initially the Church did not speak much about the practice. And when the government threatened to disenfranchise the Church and confiscate its Temples and other assets, President Wilford Woodruff—fourth president of the Church—issued (on September 24, 1890) what has come to be known as “the Manifesto,” officially calling for an end to the practice of plural marriage by members of the Church, commanding them to obey the “laws of the land,” including the “anti-polygamy laws” established and directed toward the Church.

After President Wilford Woodruff indicated that he intended “to submit to [the] laws, and to use [his] influence with the members of the Church…to have them do likewise,” a number of additional plural marriages took place outside of the U.S.—in Mexico and Canada—where the laws of the land did not forbid the practice. In addition, a very small number of plural marriages were performed in the United States after President Woodruff’s announcement that the practice was being ended. Thus, in 1904, then President of the Church—Joseph F. Smith—issued a rather strongly worded statement (typically called the “Second Manifesto), in which he announced that any new plural marriages entered into would result in the excommunication of the individuals engaging in the practice or those performing the marriages.

While nearly 30% of the world’s sovereign nations today consider polygamy legal and even acceptable (to one degree or another), the practice remains illegal in the United States—even though it is seldom prosecuted today. (With the legalization of same-sex marriages, and the downplaying of sodomy laws still on the books in many parts of the country, prosecuting individuals who practice plural marriage would be legally tenuous. Thus, there are actually polygamists of various religions and non-religious persuasions who engage in polygamy in the U.S. today.)

Do some Mormons still practice? No

Surprisingly, there are many—particularly in Western nations—who are absolutely convinced that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still practice plural marriage, because they have met someone who identifies as a “Mormon” who is in a polygamous relationship. However, these individuals are not actually members of the LDS faith. Some have been excommunicated. Others were never members of the Church. Like the Protestant Reformation, which resulted in literally thousands of denominations of Protestant Christianity, after the death of Joseph Smith (and in the decades which have followed), literally hundreds of break-off groups have arisen, professing to be the “true” version of the Church he established, many of which practice polygamy and claim they are “Latter-day Saints.” Thus, though you may have met a “Mormon polygamist,” it is guaranteed that the individual is not a member of the largest and main denomination associated with Joseph Smith’s restoration of ancient Christianity—namely The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rather, they are likely a member of some “Fundamentalist” movement that engages in polygamy but has no formal affiliation with the Church which forbids its practice.

Read more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints and their history and beliefs here.

9/18/2023 5:50:04 PM
About Us
Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology/comparative religion, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.