The revelation, in part, held that, “If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another … then he is justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him.”
But the “principle” that became a cornerstone of the Mormon faith quickly brought dramatic consequences.
“It very nearly shattered the church, brought about Joseph’s death at the hands of a lynch mob, and has been reverberating through American society ever since,” wrote Jon Krakauer in “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
It also went over like a bad rash with Smith’s wife Emma, who threatened to take additional husbands if her husband persisted in polygamy.
“She thought that if he would indulge himself, she would too,” Smith wrote in a plaintive note to his secretary.
Krakauer writes that Smith had taken multiple partners for years before introducing the concept to his followers. Shortly after, he was shot to death by an anti-Mormon mob, throwing his church into chaos.
The polygamist faction prevailed as Smith was succeeded by Brigham Young, who supported “the principle.”
Young soon led the Mormons west to the Utah Territory, taking polygamy with them. In 1851, after he was appointed governor of the new territory, Young boasted of his numerous wives, according to Krakauer’s book.
“I have many, and I am not ashamed to have it known,” he told the territorial legislature. He also told the faithful that observing “the principle” was the path to heaven.
“If any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned,” Young said.
The rest of America took a dim view of polygamy, a felony everywhere but in Utah, and the Mormons resisted decades of federal pressure to ban the practice.
The church held out until 1890, when Wilford Woodruff, its fourth prophet, gave in under threat of confiscation of church holdings.
In what was later known as “The Manifesto,” Woodruff announced that it was the Lord’s will to cease to defy man’s laws against polygamy. But many were not persuaded and eventually split off from the main LDS church to continue the practice.
Among them were the forebears of the polygamists now heading for Texas.
“That is the story of the birth of the Mormon fundamentalists,” said Sarah Gordon, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
“After 40 years of conflict that ranged from President Buchanan sending troops to Utah before the Civil War, to some 2,500 criminal prosecutions of people involved in plural marriages, the leader of the church said he would no longer counsel followers to disobey the law of the land,” she said.
Utah was finally given statehood status six years later, an impossibility without the renunciation of plural marriages, she said.
But instead of ending polygamy, the Manifesto and subsequent church measures — including excommunication — only drove it underground in Utah, as well as into Mexico, Canada and remote corners of the American West.
“You can imagine how painful it was for people who were deeply convinced of the truth of polygamy and the command of God given to Joseph Smith to learn the church had changed its policy,” Gordon said.
“Polygamy went from being the most sanctified form of marriage to being a troublesome holdover from the past,” she said.
Among the many polygamist refuges was Short Creek, Ariz., founded in 1911 on the site of what is now Colorado City. In the 1930s, a diehard polygamist named John Barlow brought his followers there.
Hundreds of miles from Salt Lake City, and cut off by the Grand Canyon from the rest of Arizona, the polygamists of Short Creek were not interfered with. That ended in 1953 when Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle sent in more than 150 police officers and troopers in a predawn raid.
More than 120 polygamous men and women were arrested, and some 260 of their children were declared wards of the state and placed in foster care. Pyle strongly condemned polygamy.
“Here is a community unalterably dedicated to the wicked theory that every maturing girl child should be forced into the bondage of multiple wifehood with men of all ages for the sole purpose of producing more children to be reared to become more chattels of this totally lawless enterprise,” he said.
But the raid, which appeared on Page 1 of the New York Times, proved a public relations fiasco. Images of families being torn apart stirred public sympathy.
“The raid was widely perceived as religious persecution by overly zealous government agencies, and it sparked a great outcry in support of the polygamists,” wrote Krakauer.
Within three years, Pyle had been voted out of office, and all the Short Creek polygamists who had been arrested, as well as their children, were back home together. And for the next half century, they were generally ignored by officials in both Arizona and Utah.