Although the Mormon Church has not practiced polygamy for over a hundred years, when many people think of “Mormons,” they still think of men with multiple wives. In today’s Church, however, people who practice plural marriage are excommunicated. The Mormon Church does not endorse breaking the law, and polygamy was ruled illegal that more than a hundred years ago. Also, this practice is only considered righteous behavior when the Lord Himself inaugurates the practice. When He forbids it, then it is sinful.
In an interview with Larry King, late Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “This Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy… They are in violation of the civil law… Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church… the Church teaches that marriage must be monogamous and does not accept into its membership those practicing plural marriage.”
In short, Mormon polygamy is no longer part of the Mormon faith as currently practiced. But no one denies that it was practiced in the nineteenth century. It is part of Mormon history and an important part.
Why was Mormon polygamy practiced?
The practice of Mormon polygamy came about because God commanded it. The exact reasons for this commandment are unknown, but we will address a few possibilities.
First, God restored His Church through Joseph Smith. All things were to be restored – all principles, all knowledge, all parts of the Lord’s gospel. Ancient prophets, such as Abraham and Isaac, practiced polygamy. The practice of polygamy would therefore be part of “all things,” all parts of the Lord’s gospel, and could be restored. In fact, the Lord gave the law to Joseph Smith, when Joseph inquired about the ancients. When the Lord reinstituted polygamy as part of the resoration of all things, all of the Church elders, including Joseph Smith, found it difficult to accept and follow.
Second, in the Book of Mormon, polygamy is prohibited unless the Lord needs to “raise up seed unto me” (Jacob 2:30). Polygamy, or plural marriage, would increase the descendents of faithful Mormon families. And, in fact, the descendents of polygamous families sustained the Church for years.
Third, polygamy taught the people humility, patience, and love; all attributes that Christians strive to attain. Mormon polygamy was not an easy practice to live. It went against societal norms. Husbands had to learn how to divide their time among their wives. Women had to learn how to share their husband and get along with each other. Those who lived the law of plural marriage were refined and became better people because of polygamy.
Fourth, polygamy provided for the plethora of women who had joined the Church, and for widows, and enabled them to have families.
Has polygamy been practiced before?
The Lord sanctioned plural marriage in ancient times. Christians generally accept that Abraham and Israel, or Jacob, had more than one wife and that this was not condemned of the Lord. Indeed, both Abraham and Jacob were blessed beyond measure. Although having multiple wives was a societal norm of the time (in a way it isn’t in the modern United States), idol worship was also a societal norm and soundly forbidden of the Lord. Most Christians do not accept the idea of modern, and Christian polygamy, and Mormons still draw criticism for the practice, even a century after it was discontinued.
Why was the practice of Mormon polygamy stopped?
Mormon polygamy was practiced for about fifty years, although only about fifteen to twenty-five percent of the members of the Mormon Church were involved in the practice. Polygamy was practiced by choice by the men of the Church, and women were also never forced to enter into a polygamist marriage.
During the latter half of this fifty years, more specifically, during the 1870s and the 1880s, the United States government took action against polygamists. They revoked voting rights, seized Church property, and imprisoned polygamist men – about 1,300 total.
In September of 1890, then Mormon prophet Wilford Woodruff received a revelation of the Lord to stop the practice of polygamy.
The Lord explains His reasoning in Doctrine and Covenants 124:49, ” Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings.”