Why Did the LDS Church Practice Polygamy?

This past week we got a question from a youth who asked: “I have had many opportunities to introduce friends to the church and it seems like the polygamy question always comes up. I do not really know why we had polygamy and why the church changed it.”  In light of this question and the recent conviction of polygamist Warren Jeffs (who is not a Latter-day Saint, nor are his followers), we thought we would do a brief Q&A post addressing the basics of LDS polygamy as simply and accurately as possible.  Here you go:

  1. Q.  Did Mormons practice polygamy? A. Yes, Mormons used to practice polygamy.  Some faithful Latter-day Saints followed a revelation to practice polygamy for about 50 years, and then ended the practice when a revelation to the prophet told them to stop it.  However, our Church hasn’t advocated polygamy for more than 100 years now.  It’s in the past and irrelevant today, let’s move on.
  2. Q. So was polygamy the Mormon standard way of marriage? A. It wasn’t, nor isn’t. The Lord’s standard law on marriage is one man to one woman.  The Book of Mormon plainly teaches that a man should “have save it be one wife” (Jacob 2:27).  Mormon.org teaches that “The Lord’s law of marriage is monogamy [one woman and one man].”[i] Polygamy isn’t the Lord’s standard, it’s the rare anomaly.
  3. Q. Why then did Mormons practice polygamy if the standard law is one man and one woman? A. Although the standard is one man and one woman, the Book of Mormon indicates that the Lord can make an exception to this rule, and if God commands his people, plural marriage can be practiced (Jacob 2:30). This apparently was the case in the Bible, when prophets such as Abraham, Jacob, and Moses had plural wives, and for a brief period of time it was also the case for some Latter-day Saints.  God can give a law, and revoke a law, as he is the lawgiver (In other words God can say: “Sacrifice animals to remember me,” and then change it to, “Now take the sacrament to remember me.”  Or he can say, “Here is a Law given to Moses, follow it” and then later change it and say “Now here is a higher law, follow it instead” as he did in the New Testament).
  4. Q. So why did the Lord tell Joseph Smith and the early saints to practice polygamy then? A. We don’t know exactly why the Lord told Joseph Smith to implement plural marriage.  Perhaps it was part of the “restitution [or restoration] of all things” (Acts 3:21), including the marriage system of some of the ancient patriarchs (see D&C 132:32).  The Book of Mormon hints that part of the purpose of plural marriage is to “raise up seed unto me” (Jacob 2:30) and “to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:63).   On the Church’s official website it says that it is to “to help establish the House of Israel.”[ii]
  5. Q. Isn’t it true that all Mormons practiced polygamy during the mid 1800’s, and that those who did had like 50 wives, like in this post’s picture? A. False.  During the brief 50 years when polygamist marriage were authorized in the Church, only 20%-25%[iii] of  married Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy, where a man  married more than one woman at a time (technically polygyny).  Of the LDS men who did enter into plural marriages, most only married one additional wife.[iv]
  6. Q. I heard that polygamy was implemented by Brigham Young and practiced because all the men crossing the plains died and there were too many women and not enough men  A. False. Census records show that during the time plural marriage was practiced more adult men were in Utah than adult women.  Additionally, polygamy was implemented for the Church by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo before the Saints even came west to Salt Lake (see D&C 132).
  7. Q. Someone told me that the reason why plural marriage ended was because the U.S. laws made it illegal, but that if we didn’t have those laws we would practice it again today? A. False. Although the laws and condition of society can influence revelation, plural marriage did not end only because of the laws of the country.  Plural marriage ended because God revealed to the prophet Wilford Woodruff that practicing plural marriage was no longer expedient for the LDS Church, and that the continuation of its practice would hinder the Church in its efforts to preach the gospel to the whole world and provide the ordinances of salvation (see Official Declaration 1 and the excerpts by President Wilford Woodruff at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants).  It is about an overall revelation, not a U.S. law. Otherwise the Church would practice polygamy today in countries where there aren’t laws against polygamy, but they don’t.
  8. Q. Polygamy was a mistake by the Church and its leaders, wasn’t it?  A. No.  Remember, the Book of Mormon teaches that God “doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world” (2 Nephi 26:24).  There was a purpose behind its practice, which purpose was for good (although we may not immediately see it or know it right now). Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor, George Q. Cannon, and other great Latter-day Saints did not make a mistake, they followed a difficult law given by God.  Similarly, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and others didn’t make a mistake in having more than one wife: they followed a law as well.  Although Mormons are not ashamed of our polygamist past, it is against the standards and teachings of the Latter-day Saints to practice plural marriage today.  Anyone who is currently practicing polygamy is not a faithful Mormon and is excluded from membership in the LDS Church[v], even if the laws of their country allow it.

We hope some of these points might help you in your discussions with others.  We testify that the LDS Church always have been, and continues to be, led by living, authorized prophets of God.

[i] http://mormon.org/faq/#Polygamy

[ii] http://mormon.org/faq/#Polygamy

[iii] Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992),, p.1095

[iv] Joseph Smith and His Plural Wives (FARMS Review, 1998, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 67-104) by Richard Lloyd Anderson & Scott H. Faulring report that 66.3% of Utah polygamists had two wives, and another 21.2% had three wives.

[v] In 1998, LDS Church President and Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008) made the following statement about the LDS Church’s position on plural marriage: “This Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. … If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church” (Ensign, Nov. 1998, 71).

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