10 Things Polygamy Gave Mormonism

10 Things Polygamy Gave Mormonism September 27, 2016

Since completing the Year of Polygamy project, (a podcast series where I rely on the works of the top scholars in Mormonism  to tell the history of Mormon Plural Marriage), I am often asked how polygamy affects the LDS church today. Polygamy has shaped the LDS church and Mormonism so much that I still believe the LDS church is a “Polygamy Church.” Saying so often offends my fellow Latter-day Saint friends who are quick to tell me that we no longer practice polygamy. While this is true in a technical, earthly sense, the practice of Mormon plural marriage has been so integral to Mormonism, as either a response or a reaction to the practice that the influences are undeniable.

Here are just ten possible ways the practice has imprinted itself onto doctrine, history, and policies. Please feel free to share others I have missed in the comments below.

1. Temple and sealing practices

This one is fairly straight forward, and is likely the most obvious modern connection.  While LDS men are not currently permitted to live in polygamy, the present-day sealing practices that occur in LDS temples allow men to be sealed to multiple women after death or divorce. This means that there are living men who may be sealed to two living women (one legally married, one legally divorced) or to a living woman and a woman who has passed away. While there are stories of exceptions, LDS women do not have the same degree of flexibility that men do in being sealed to multiple spouses. They are told that if they remarry, they will have to choose the spouse they want to spend eternity with, in the hereafter.

Also as evidence of Mormons technically living polygamy, includes several living LDS apostles being sealed to multiple women. This has led to speculation as to why apostles have only remarried women who are single or divorced (because they cannot themselves be sealed to another man). The idea that men can be sealed to multiple women for time and eternity is not a new idea in Mormonism and it didn’t disappear with The Manifesto:

11th president of the church, Harold B. Lee wrote this poem after his wife’s death:
“My lovely Joan was sent to me:
So Joan joins Fern
That three might be, more fitted for eternity.
‘O Heavenly Father, my thanks to thee’ “
(Deseret News 1974 Church Almanac, page 17)

In 1897 LDS Apostle Charles W. Penrose said:

In the case of a man marrying a wife in the everlasting covenant who dies while he continues in the flesh and marries another by the same divine law, each wife will come forth in her order and enter with him into his glory. (“Mormon” Doctrine Plain and Simple, or Leaves from the Tree of Life, by Charles W. Penrose, p.66, 1897, Salt Lake City, UT).

It is understood among most Mormons that in the next life, men will have the option of taking on plural wives into their eternal families.


2. Relief Society 

Image result for relief society and polygamy
Early Relief Society members. Source: FMH podcast, State Archives, used with permission.

The early days of the Relief Society were used almost exclusively to defend the church against allegations of polygamy. This is in part why the Relief Society was disbanded. Ironically, when it was reorganized in 1860 it was used to defend the practice. According to Daughters in My Kingdom, plural marriage was defended by early Relief Society sisters:

“One Latter-day Saint woman expressed the feelings of many others when she said: “There is no spot on this wide earth where kindness and affection are more bestowed upon woman, and her rights so sacredly defended as in Utah. We are here to express our love for each other, and to exhibit to the world our devotion to God our Heavenly Father; and to show our willingness to comply with the requirements of the Gospel; and the law of Celestial Marriage is one of its requirements that we are resolved to honor, teach, and practise, which may God grant us strength to do.”’


3. Correlation

What did salvation mean to Mormons once plural marriage was taken from the earth? Scholar Matthew Bowman mentions in his book, “The Mormon People,” that during the transition from polygamous church to a non-polygamous church, Mormons exchanged polygamy for progressivism. The idea of eternal progression became the new focus, and eternal improvement and education became the new goal for achieving eternal salvation. This eliminated the idea of dynastic eternal unions and replaced them with individual self-discipline. Doing so created an even greater emphasis on works over Grace, and drove further the idea that Mormons need to work their way into the Celestial Kingdom.

Correlation in the modern Church, according to Bowman, is a deeply progressive movement. It started as a response to the lack of plural sealings by supplementing the doctrine of plurality with the spirit of optimism inspired by Joseph Smith Jr..

Joseph F. Smith, nephew of Smith Jr., and sixth president of the Church, organized some of the first correlation committees as a way to reorganize the church after plural marriage was abandoned. Later, leaders like David O. McKay used correlation as a way to root out polygamous doctrine and remnants of plural marriage in Mormon culture. Using correlated materials ensured that rogue practices were contained and sometimes even eliminated. This was, in part a response to apostles that failed to recognize the authority of the Church President and organized plural sealings after the Manifesto. The result was that authority, which was earlier tied to the authority to perform plural sealings, became transferred into a culture of obeying authority of church leaders and the “follow the prophet” mentality.

Listen to part two of Episode 100 to hear scholar Matthew Bowman talk about this issue in depth.


4. Missionary Program

The Mormon Missionary program has a very interesting and complicated history with polygamy. From Joseph Smith allegedly sending men on missions so he could court their wives, to the France Mission Polygamy scandal– there are fascinating stories tying the practices together. I’d rather focus on the modern-day missionary program and how it developed into a success after plural marriage was officially discontinued in 1890.

When the LDS church abandoned the practice of polygamy publicly,  mainstream success became a new and exciting option. Suddenly, Mormonism didn’t look so weird or scandalous and the re-centering on the messages of the Book of Mormon became a convenient and successful conversion tool. Missionary work skyrocketed, including new doors being opened for missionaries to travel and preach in different parts of the world. Previous biases held by officials in areas like Scandinavia, subsided and more missionaries were allowed into homes that polygamy had previously barred them from.


5. Modern Policies and Programs:

I was initially  going to focus on the tithing program, since polygamy may have gifted the LDS church with a lot of debt. By their own admission, at the turn of the century the LDS church started pulling themselves out of the financial crisis polygamy had left them in, and start paying off their debts. During the strictest years of anti-polygamy legislation (1887-1890) and pressure from the Federal Government, the Church was said to acquire nearly 2 million dollars in debt. While historian Michael Quinn believes the Official Church Histories overplay the role of polygamy in the church’s debt crisis, the threat of confiscation may have still contributed to it. (This article has an interesting history of tithing, including the salaries of Bishops and Stake Presidents at the start of the 20th century). Within a decade after The Manifesto, Lorenzo Snow was implementing a tithing program that resembles the one Mormons practice today, giving ten percent of their income to the Church. Shortly after it became a requirement to enter the LDS temples.

Lorenzo Snow’s program is often credited for pulling the church out of major financial debt, but the story is much more complex. Still, there is a possible correlation between Lorenzo Snow’s response to the debt that polygamy caused the church. Because the church’s finances are too complicated to lay squarely at the feet of plural marriage, I think it is sufficient to suggest that many modern policies have their roots in a polygamous past and tithing is just an example.

Probably the biggest and most timely policy would be the LDS church’s November 2015 policy, also known as the Exclusion Policy. It’s a policy that prohibits children of same-sex couples from being baptized into the LDS church. This policy mirrors a similar policy that was instituted decades ago to prevent children of polygamist families from joining the Church.

Other policies that have been touched by polygamy include temple recommend questions and interviews, Home-teaching (if one accepts that the Mormon Reformation was influenced by polygamy), and preventing family members from entering LDS wedding ceremonies if they do not have a recommend.


6. The Proclamation and the modern LDS family:

For the majority of LDS church’s existence, “Celestial Marriage,” meant “Plural Marriage.” Historian David John Buerger noted,

“After the Woodruff Manifesto in 1890, the association of celestial marriage with polygyny was discouraged; modern Mormons now perceive celestial marriage and plural marriage as two separate concepts” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony).

While the modern definition of Celestial Marriage has now shifted to mean just-your-average-temple-sealing, earlier Saints wouldn’t have understood the terms in the same context. As the LDS church moved away from the practice, the D&C still maintains the Celestial Marriage revelation in D&C 132, even if the interpretations of the scriptures have evolved.

This is one of the key criticisms Mormon Fundamentalists hold against the LDS church- that we have changed the definition of Celestial Marriage to fit the legal and societal expectations. Fundamentalists firmly believe the Church responded to public pressure and abandoned one of God’s most important and fundamental laws. It has also been suggested that because the LDS church can no longer explore the “higher laws” of heaven that include plurality, they have had to busy themselves with other ideas of family structure, (since the emphasis on the family structure really stems from Joseph Smith implementing plural sealings). This theory might explain why the LDS church has invested incredible energy against homosexual unions- because they are left with strong doctrinal and cultural emphasis on defining Mormon families, and now Mormon families have become just like everyone else.


7. Modern PR Campaigns:

Many will be surprised to learn that Mormons have long been concerned about public relations. In 1852, Apostle Orson Pratt was sent on a PR mission to Washington D.C. to convince the world that plural marriage was a new and exciting law, one that if understood in context, could help the world and relieve it of its wickedness. Of course, this didn’t go over as well as the Saints had hoped. Eventually church leaders would have to distance themselves from Orson Pratt’s campaign and try a new strategy. For several decades after, they deemed outside misunderstandings as a sign that they were a chosen, peculiar people. When “The Principle” was publicly abandoned in the early 20th century, with it came a slow and steady abandonment of polygamous doctrines like Adam/God, Journal of Discourses, racial bans, and more, allowing the church to have more flexibility to integrate themselves into mainstream Christianity.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the LDS church has employed several public relation firms and distanced themselves from early Mormon doctrines that polygamy made a requirement.


8. Mormon heaven:

D&C 131 really starts defining what the Mormon heavens look like.  While the conception of eternal life, especially the afterlife is very much influenced by the practices of plural marriage, I’ll only focus on a few connections for the sake of brevity (there are many).

The revelation outlining the structure of the Celestial Kingdom, (Mormonism’s highest degree of heaven) was given at Ramus, Illinois in 1843. Joseph Smith was staying with his newly sealed plural wife, Almera Johnson (sister to Benjamin F. Johnson) when we recorded this revelation. He had married her as plural wife a month earlier and this was a return visit to her.  The requirement of marriage and Eternal Glory is developing here, making these sealings essential for salvation.

Screenshot of LDS.org's explanation of the eternities
Screenshot of LDS.org’s explanation of the eternities

Previous to this visit where D&C 131 was transmitted, Smith had explained the new doctrine of plural marriage to a reluctant Benjamin and Almera Johnson. 1843 would be a year that Joseph Smith was developing and exploring the idea of plural unions and how they would fit into the eternities. D&C 132 (the Celestial Marriage revelation) would come just two months later. It should also be noted that many practicing fundamentalists still believe that within the Celestial Kingdom, the three levels (mentioned in the screenshot and in D&C 131) are for polygamists only. The bottom level for men with a “quorum” of three wives, the middle level for men with a “quorum” of five wives, and the top level for men with a “quorum” of at least seven wives. (You can hear me talking about this more here).

We know that as late as 1838, Joseph Smith still possibly understood that marriages were for “time only,” meaning that he believed his unions ended at death. When he started sealing himself to multiple women, he began flirting with the idea of eternal families, personal sealings, and eternal salvation. (In the 1830’s, sealings were group ceremonies that included the Hosanna shout, in the 1840’s they became about connecting individuals together). Polygamy directly shaped the way Joseph Smith would see and establish ordinances that affected life after death.

There is also an entire discourse on Mormonism as a “works church” vs. a “Grace church,” and this too stems from polygamy. The idea that some ordinances, including eternal marriage, are necessary to be saved in eternal salvation mean that Grace alone doesn’t save.


9. Church Leadership

 A chart of few cousins among the mormon elite: Pratt-Romney-Eyring-Kimball-Woolley
A chart of few cousins among the mormon elite: Pratt-Romney-Eyring-Kimball-Woolley, Public Image: Imgur

In many ways, LDS Church Leadership is still a very dynastic system where leaders are connected through familial connections. For nearly half the church’s early history, plural marriage openly allowed and encouraged these dynastic sealings. Today, the connections within the leadership is still largely about who you know.

Mormon historian, D. Michael Quinn said,

“At a primary level were kinship ties. No less significant were marriage connections…Convoluted relationships made the Mormon hierarchy an extended family, and extensive family connections persist among LDS general authorities today” (The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, p.163).


10. Temple attendance, sacredness, holy garments, and oaths:

This is a complex and sensitive topic, so I will try and tread as respectfully as I can.

If biographer’s of Emma Smith are to be believed, the temple garment started out as a way to set polygamist men apart from monogamist men ( see Emma Hale Smith Biography, page 140). While the Endowment Ceremony first developed around those who were secretly initiated into plural sealings, it was quickly extended to more than just polygamists. Still, it is suggested that those receiving their endowments would have known about the secret practice, even if they didn’t currently live it. They would have been initiated into the Holy Order which meant keeping the practice secret, or rather- sacred, from the outside world.

If we compare the interior design and function of the Kirtland temple (pre-plural marriage) to the design of modern-day temples, we can see that current LDS temples resemble more closely the functions of the Endowment House where plural sealings were first performed before the temples were constructed. The first Endowment ceremony ever performed was in 1842 in the upstairs floor of the Red Brick Store where Joseph Smith established the Quorum of the Anointed, a group of men that had been secretly initiated into polygamy. (Read this article to also see how the development of the offices of the Priesthood are tied to plural marriage theology and development and masonry).

There are other aspects of the temple ceremony that partner nicely with the doctrine of plural marriage, but because we take oaths not to reveal them outside the temple, you can find transcripts online to compare the language. As the ceremony has developed, certain promises and covenants have evolved and others have not. Much of the language and ceremony reflects the early ceremonies where plural couples would have participated.


This list is reductive and incomplete and deserves a more in-depth study. One could only look to the former RLDS church, now the Community of Christ, who never fully embraced polygamy to see what Mormonism without plural marriage looks like. The uncomfortable reality for many LDS people is that our church resembles fundamentalist sects in doctrine, practice, and structure more than it resembles “Emma’s church.”

Love it or hate it, Mormonism is very much affected by polygamy, and we continue to be influenced by the practice today.

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