How do you respond to the criticism that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can’t be Christian because the LDS Church at one time taught and practiced polygamy? I suspect a simple presentation of the facts followed by a few official statements of the Church should suffice. Before I do that, I would like to offer a few personal observations.
I do not have Utah pioneer heritage. I was born and raised in California. Members of my family are converts to the Church. My ancestors were from Tennessee and Missouri and were either Baptists or Presbyterians, including many who were ordained ministers. On the other hand, Carol’s family is all from Utah and includes several ancestors who participated in plural marriage.
I have gained an appreciation of the social implications of plural marriage from reading the life histories and journals of some of Carol’s great grandparents. Trust me, it was no picnic. They obeyed the counsel of their priesthood leaders and entered into plural marriages but it was not easy. There was conflict, petty jealousies and economic hardship. On the other hand, these marriages produced some of the most faithful and devout Latter-day Saints in Mormon history.
The early LDS practice of Plural Marriage
Polygamy — or more correctly polygyny, the marriage of more than one woman to the same man — was an important part of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a half-century. The practice began during the lifetime of Joseph Smith but became publicly and widely known during the time of Brigham Young. Today, the practice of polygamy is strictly prohibited in the Church, as it has been for over 100 years.
In 1831, Church founder Joseph Smith made a prayerful inquiry about the ancient Old Testament practice of plural marriage. This resulted in the divine instruction to reinstitute the practice as a religious principle. Joseph Smith entered into dozens of plural marriages, as did several of the early church leaders. It was not commonly known or practiced until the latter years of the Nauvoo period in 1842-43. Records are sketchy as to the details of this time.
Practiced openly by perhaps as many as 20 to 30% of the church members after the Saints moved to Utah, it was a source of contention to the rest of the nation for nearly fifty years. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church, received what Latter-day Saints believe to be a revelation in which God withdrew the command to practice plural marriage. It was difficult for some to accept this major change to their way of life.
President Woodruff issued what has come to be known as the “Manifesto,” a written declaration to Church members and the public at large that stopped the practice of plural marriage. Today Church members honor and respect the sacrifices made by those who practiced polygamy in the early days of the Church. However, the practice is outlawed in the Church, and no person can practice plural marriage and remain a member. The doctrine is not taught in church curriculum.
Confusion about polygamy today
Polygamous groups and individuals in and around Utah often cause confusion for casual observers and for visiting news media. The polygamists and polygamist organizations in parts of the western United States and Canada have no affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that the term “Mormon” — widely understood to be a nickname for Latter-day Saints — is sometimes misleadingly applied to them.
President Gordon B. Hinckley stated the following about polygamy in the Church’s October 1998 general conference: “I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law. They know they are in violation of the law. They are subject to its penalties. The Church, of course, has no jurisdiction whatever in this matter.
“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. An article of our faith is binding upon us. It states, ‘We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law’ (Articles of Faith 1:12).”
Summary and Conclusion
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not teach or practice polygamy or plural marriage and has not done so for over 100 years. Although the doctrine is still contained within our scriptures, specifically section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, it is not taught as a current doctrine and is not tolerated if practiced. Those who do so are excommunicated from the church. It was a time of our history that we consider a part of the restoration of all things.
The subject of polygamy continues to fascinate both members of the Church and those who are investigating the Church. It is a common topic for those in the media to write about or at least mention the practice in any major piece about the Church or its people that is published today. It is a source of humor for many, embarrassment for some and misunderstanding for most. It is a sacred principle, an extension of the law of Celestial Marriage and deserves greater respect.
I do not pretend to know everything about the doctrine or the practice. There are many experts both in and out of the Church that have researched and written extensively about it. I am saddened that some critics of the Church point to the history of plural marriage in the LDS faith as evidence that we could not possibly be true followers of Jesus Christ. We invite any who are seriously investigating our Church to get the facts before they embrace false accusations.