Although Mormons (a nickname sometimes applied to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) practiced polygamy more than one hundred years ago, they do not practice it today. Anyone who does so is excommunicated and the groups that practice today and call themselves “Mormons” are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Mormon polygamy practiced by the early Latter-day Saints was very different from the practice of many modern groups. It was a minority practice and was not required of anyone. In fact, in order to have more than one wife, a man had to seek permission from a variety of sources. First, he needed the permission of the church, in order to demonstrate he could properly care for a wife and was a member in good standing. (First marriages, of course, did not require church permission.) Next, the man needed permission from his first wife. She not only had to approve the additional marriage, but also had to approve the specific woman chosen. In some families, the current wives selected the new wives themselves and were often the ones who received the initial revelation that another wife was wanted by God. The man also had to receive the permission of the woman he wanted to marry, naturally. Marriages were never arranged by the church unless Brigham Young was asked to recommend someone. Even then, the man needed the woman’s approval.
Thirty percent of women who entered into a marriage as a second or later wife were previously married. In an era when women had few legal rights and few ways to support themselves, it often provided a measure of security, particularly if the woman already had children or was older. Only one-third of all LDS adult women were in a marriage that involved Mormon polygamy, and the majority of those marriages involved just two wives. Because there were far more women than men, this allowed more women to have opportunities for marriage and motherhood.
In general, early Mormons, like Mormons today, discouraged divorce. However, Brigham Young granted divorces to any woman who discovered she could not cope with her marriage if polygamy was involved. However, the men who discovered they could not cope were told to return home and work harder on their marriages. Having chosen to take on an additional wife, they were now responsible for her well-being.
Mormon life in early Utah was very challenging. The work was hard and the men were often away. In the early days of the church, missionaries were often chosen from among the married men, who then traveled for years at a time without their spouses. (Today missionaries are younger and unmarried, or older and serving as couples.) Many women found that having additional wives in the home gave them an unusual amount of autonomy they did not have in more traditional marriages. If there were enough women in the home who were willing to care for all the children, the other women were free, and even encouraged by Brigham Young, to return to school for more education. Mormon women were encouraged by Young to enter careers not traditionally offered to women in the rest of the nation. Martha Cannon, for instance, was a doctor and was one of seven wives in a Mormon polygamous marriage. She decided to run for the state senate against her own husband and won, becoming the first female state senator.
“As I have often told my sisters in the Female Relief Societies, we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large” (DBY, 216–17, Brigham Young, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young). [Note: “Sisters” refers to all female members of the church and the Relief Society is the women’s auxiliary.]
When the men were away on missions, additional wives provided more labor for the demanding farm life most families lived. It meant live-in emotional support and help with the children. If one of the wives was employed, it meant the family could live better while the man was away.
Eliza R. Snow, a wife of Brigham Young, said in a conference on the status of women:
“Our enemies pretend that, in Utah, woman is held in a state of vassalage—that she does not act from choice, but by coercion. What nonsense!
“I will now ask of this assemblage of intelligent ladies, Do you know of any place on the face of the earth, where woman has more liberty and where she enjoys such high and glorious privileges as she does here as a Latter-day Saint? No! the very idea of a woman here in a state of slavery is a burlesque on good common sense … as women of God, filling high and responsible positions, performing sacred duties—women who stand not as dictators, but as counselors to their husbands, and who, in the purest, noblest sense of refined womanhood, are truly their helpmates—we not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demands we should!” (See Jaynann Morgan Payne, “Eliza R. Snow: First Lady of the Pioneers,” Ensign, September 1973.)
While this article has explored many benefits of early Mormon polygamy, the fact exists that there was no reason given by God for it to be instituted when it was. He commanded it; His Saints obeyed. Mormon polygamy was not a popular thing, even among the Latter-day Saints, but those who chose to participate did so out of love for God and out of a desire to be obedient to His commandments. While they were truly blessed for their obedience, they were also severely persecuted by their fellowman for their practice. Many Latter-day Saints were driven out of the country in trying to protect their families. Eventually God saw that the church would be destroyed if Mormon polygamy continued, and in 1890, He rescinded the commandment to live polygamy, and it became an excommunicable offense, which it continues to be today (See Doctrine and Covenants: Official Declaration 1).