That’s because it was once at the heart of Mormon identity — defended from the pulpit, in the courtroom and in Congress. Latter-day Saint leaders forsook the practice only after draconian anti-polygamy measures by the U.S. government left them believing their very survival was at risk.
Today The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicates anyone who promotes or practices polygamy. Candidates for a temple recommend are asked whether they “support, affiliate with or agree with” any opposition groups, which is often seen as code for polygamists. And the church’s global missionaries cannot even begin to share the church’s message with African polygamists.
“It’s behind us,” LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1998. “I condemn it as a practice. It is not doctrinal. It is not legal.”
Still, it’s not so easy to disentangle the principle of plural marriage from Mormonism.
It is still enshrined in Mormon scripture (Doctrine & Covenants 132) and some believe it will one day be re-established, if not on earth, at least in heaven. In his quasi-official 1966 book Mormon Doctrine, which remains in print, the late LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that “the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming and the ushering in of the millennium.”
LDS Church founder Joseph Smith first encountered the idea of taking multiple wives, Mormons believe, during his 1831 study of Bible passages that described the polygamous marriages of Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham, Jacob and David. It became synonymous with Smith’s efforts to “restore” the ancient order of priesthood, which he taught was lost over the centuries.
In 1843, Smith recorded what he said was a divine revelation, defining “a new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also the plurality of wives.”
Smith introduced the practice to a small circle of associates in Nauvoo, Ill. Most of them initially resisted, but came to believe it was God’s will for them. By the time the Mormon pioneers established their Great Basin kingdom in Utah several years later, plural marriage was an open secret.
In 1852, historians say, Apostle Orson Pratt publicly defended the “doctrine of plurality of wives,” arguing it was essential for eternal salvation and to bring more posterity into the world.
Besides, Mormons believed the right to practice their religion was protected by the First Amendment.
It didn’t take long, however, for the federal government to attack that last argument, enacting laws that stripped polygamists of their right to vote, hold office or own property. It eventually disincorporated the LDS Church itself and refused to allow Utah to become a state.
Finally, in October 1890, President Wilford Woodruff proposed a truce. He issued “the Manifesto,” which stated: “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, . . . I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the church over which I preside to have them do likewise.”
But most Utah historians believe some LDS leaders continued to authorize plural marriages in secret for at least another 14 years until President Joseph F. Smith issued the “Second Manifesto” in 1904, which threatened church action against those who continued in and promoted the practice.
Within a few decades, LDS apostles would present the church’s new perspective that monogamous marriages in LDS temples were, indeed, “celestial marriages.”
“The Book of Mormon makes clear,” says Brigham Young University historian Ronald K. Esplin, that “plural marriage was appropriate at special times for God’s purposes, but monogamy is the general standard.”
Throughout the rest of the 20th century, Mormon leaders worked strenuously to separate the church from plural marriage by excommunicating polygamists, clamping down on historical research, and eradicating any reference to the practice in the church’s official literature.
Today, Mormon Sunday schools tell of celebrated polygamists such as Brigham Young as well as of little-known polygamist prophets such as Heber J. Grant as if they were 20th century monogamists. There’s nary a hint of more than one wife — despite the fact that thousands of Utahns are descended from those other wives.