Polygamy, or plural marriage as it is often called, was instituted as a practice of the Mormon Church by Joseph Smith. Joseph had inquired of the Lord regarding the practice of plural marriage by the ancient prophets. The Lord answered,
Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation.
David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me (Doctrine and Covenants 132:37, 38).
As a response to Joseph’s inquiry, the Lord explained that plural marriage is a righteous lifestyle, when He commands it, and when it is practiced according to the commandments delivered through God’s prophets. Otherwise, the command of the Lord is that a man shall have only one wife. The Lord ordains the practice of plural marriage to bring up seed unto Himself, or in other words, to populate the kingdom of the righteous; or when there are many women without the protection of husbands or the blessing of childbearing.
Our modern era is the “Last Dispensation of Time” before the Second Coming of Christ. This is also called the “Fullness of Times.” This phrase means that all aspects of the kingdom of God on earth are to be restored and organized, practiced in their fullness, in order to bring all things together in preparation for the Lord’s return. The restoration of plural marriage, if only briefly, fulfilled all three requirements for its practice—It helped the Church grow quickly, it provided for female converts to have families, and it fulfilled the ancient practice in a righteous context.
This does not mean that the practice of polygamy was easy. It has been highly controversial in our modern western society since it was commanded to Joseph Smith. It appears that Joseph received the command to introduce plural marriage to the Saints as early as 1831, but did not record the revelation until 1842. Joseph was reluctant to practice it at first, and many of his closest friends and Mormon Church leaders advised against it. Sidney Rigdon so opposed it that at the death of Joseph Smith, he started his own restorationist church that denounced polygamy. Brigham Young said he envied the corpses in caskets in funeral processions and wished to trade places with them, rather than live the doctrine. Joseph’s wife Emma begged him not to teach or begin the practice of polygamy; but despite the societal taboo, Joseph obeyed the revelation of God. At first, social conditions made it impossible to practice polygamy openly. This may have been why it was never publicly acknowledged as a practice of the Mormons until they had settled in Utah, where they were the majority and there was some distance between them and their persecutors.
It is important to understand a few facts about the practice of polygamy in Mormon Church history:
- Some polygamous marriages were “spiritual” unions only and did not result in a sexual union. Since Mormons believe in eternal marriage, this meant that women not sealed to a man in an eternal covenant could look forward to having a partner in heaven.
- Not all Mormons practiced polygamy. Mostly, it was the leaders who were requested to do so.
- Most Mormons who practiced polygamy only had two or three wives.
- All Mormons found the law of polygamy difficult to live. It was a real test of faith for all involved. Since persecution increased because of its practice, that made the lifestyle even more difficult to maintain.
- Women were highly esteemed in the Mormon Church and were encouraged to be decisive and to exercise free will. No woman was forced to marry, and divorce was allowed. The gospel as it was taught considered that men and women are equals in the sight of God; men were encouraged to treat their wives as equals.
- In some polygamous marriages, the wives got along famously and supported each other in child-rearing and household tasks, even allowing each other greater independence to pursue education or vocational pursuits. In other households, there was jealosy and discord, which had to be overcome by faith.
When it was officially announced in 1852, the U.S. government sent troops to Utah to civilize the Mormons. Slavery and polygamy were considered the “twin relics of barbarism” by the Republican Party, and when they ended the first, they went after the second. Legislation was passed to prevent it, and Utah statehood was stalled by the issue. In the late 1800s many Mormons were imprisoned and disenfranchised, and others, including many leaders, went into hiding. They feared God more than the Federal Government, and so refused to give up the practice. Facing greater and greater pressure from the government, Mormon Church president Wilford Woodruff sought guidance from the Lord. In response, he received a vision. In it he saw the results that would occur, if the members of the Church continued the practice of polygamy:
…confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve [Apostles] and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people…
The Lord told President Woodruff that if the Saints stopped the practice, the Prophets, Apostles, and fathers could remain at home, so that they could instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so they could attend to their ordinances (Excerpts of three addresses concerning the Manifesto).
In Official Declaration 1, President Woodruff and the Church announced the end of the practice of polygamy in 1890. This action shows how the Lord works through His prophets, not just in upholding eternal principles that never change, but in managing the current affairs of the kingdom that are affected by surrounding culture and events.
There is probably no topic more controversial for the Mormon Church than polygamy, especially among its critics. The Church officially ended the practice of polygamy in 1890, but its status as a doctrine of Mormonism is exploited by Mormon detractors. It is important to understand that there are no Mormon polygamists now. Any Mormon who practices polygamy is subject to excommunication from the Church. Groups who claim to be Mormons and polygamists have no affiliation with the Church.
You can find more information at Mormon-Polygamy.org.