Sunday, March 12, 2006

History of Polygamy in Utah

History of Polygamy in Utah. This article is from the Utah History Encyclopedia. It was written by Jessie L. Embry.

This post is inspired by the debut of the TV show Big Love on HBO in the United States. It is expected that this show will bring about renewed conversations on polygamy and more stereotyping of Mormons.

I think it is important to remember that polygamy is not a Mormon invention. It is an ancient practice endorsed by many historical societies. Further, it is still common in the world today with Islam allowing men four wives. Hence, the historical study or current debate about polygamy should not focus exclusively on ex-communicated Mormon groups or on Utah.

Studying the historical basis of polygamy also should not get caught up in the message of anti-polygamy or pro-polygamy groups that exist in the modern time. Polygamy is not about child abuse or marrying underage girls even if these abuses have occured anymore than monogamy is about child abuse even though some monogamists have abused children. I think anyone trying to study polygamy from a scholarly perspective is going to have a tough time getting through modern rhetoric.

From the site:

When establishing the LDS Church, Joseph Smith recorded numerous revelations he claimed to receive, often in answer to questions about the Bible, which are now included in the Doctrine and Covenants, part of the LDS canon. In answer to his question as to why many of the Old Testament leaders had more than one wife, Smith received what is now known as Section 132. Although the revelation was not recorded until 1843, Smith may have received it in the 1830s and married his first plural wife, Fanny Alger, in 1835. Polygamy was not openly practiced in the Mormon Church until 1852 when Orson Pratt, an apostle, made a public speech defending it as a tenet of the church. From 1852 until 1890, Mormon Church leaders preached and encouraged members, especially those in leadership positions, to marry additional wives.

A majority of the Latter-day Saints never lived the principle. The number of families involved varied by community; for example, 30 percent in St. George in 1870 and 40 percent in 1880 practiced polygamy, while only 5 percent in South Weber practiced the principle in 1880. Rather than the harems often suggested in non-Mormon sources, most Mormon husbands married only two wives. The wives usually lived in separate homes and had direct responsibility for their children. Where the wives lived near each other, the husbands usually visited each wife on a daily or weekly basis. While there were the expected troubles between wives and families, polygamy was usually not the only cause, although it certainly could cause greater tension. Since polygamy was openly practiced for only a short time by Mormons, there were no established rules about how family members should relate to each other. Instead, each family adapted to their particular circumstances.

Reactions from outside the church to statements about polygamy were immediate and negative. In 1854 the Republican party termed polygamy and slavery the "twin relics of barbarism." In 1862 the United States Congress passed the Morrill Act, which prohibited plural marriage in the territories, disincorporated the Mormon Church, and restricted the church's ownership of property. The nation was in the midst of the Civil War, however, and the law was not enforced. In 1867 the Utah Territorial Legislature asked Congress to repeal the Morrill Act. Instead of doing that, the House Judiciary Committee asked why the law was not being enforced, and the Cullom Bill, an attempt to strengthen the Morrill Act, was introduced. Although it did not pass, most of its provisions later became law. Out of a number of other bills introduced during the 1870s against polygamy, only the Poland Act passed, in 1874. It gave district courts all civil and criminal jurisdiction and limited the probate courts to matters of estate settlement, guardianship, and divorce.


Maggie said...

Can you please explain to me the basis for the belief in polygamy by a few early Mormons and what "Section 132" states. I am familiar with other cultures and their basis for belief, but I don't understand the early Mormon belief. Thank you for your help.

Miland said...

I am not Mormon and I am not familiar with all the specifics but a search on Google reveals that this is from Doctrines & Covenants (a Mormon holy book) Section 132 which can be found at It starts, "Revelation through Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded on July 12, 1843."

gilagrump said...

Polygamy in various forms is of ancient origin, usually based on economic or demographic factors. Ancient polygamy was generally a true marriage with mutual obligations and rights. Joseph Smith's polygamy, however, differed in that (a) it was religiously motivated, and (b) his plural wives (after Emma) had no conjugal or property rights or rights of economic support. Some of his wives were already married and lived with their husbands.