Joseph Smith Polygamy: Latter-day Saint Polygamy Q&A

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

A lot of people know that early Mormons practiced polygamy or plural marriage, but they may not know much about it. They may be afraid to ask questions. So let’s start with an overview.

When did plural marriage start in the church and how long did it last? 

Joseph Smith Polgamy Timeline; Plural marriage started with Joseph Smith and lasted for about 50 years until the end of the 19th century.

And how many people roughly were involved?

It varied quite a bit over time. In the early period when Joseph was introducing polygamy, by the time he died, it was a very small group, maybe 100 people that were involved with plural marriage. A couple of decades later, when it was at its height during the Utah period, estimates are that maybe 50% of the membership of the Church in Utah was involved in plural marriage in one form or another, as a wife, as a husband, as a child. By the time President Woodruff announced the manifesto in 1890, the practice was already declining quite a bit. And from there it declined quite a bit and just faded out as the generation that had been involved passed on.

Over time, many people have associated plural marriage more with Brigham Young, the Church of the second prophet, than with Joseph Smith. Why is that?

I think it’s because Joseph Smith introduced the practice very quietly and very gradually and among a very small group of people in Nauvoo. And it wasn’t until the saints got to Utah that Brigham Young publicly announced and acknowledged the practice of polygamy.

What can you tell us about Joseph Smith and the beginnings of plural marriage? Where did the idea come from?

We know that Joseph received a revelation while he was working on the inspired revision or translation of the Bible very soon after the Church was organized, based on questions that he had about the Old Testament and the practice of Joseph Smith polygamy or plural marriage among the patriarchs. He began introducing the practice of plural marriage when the saints were in Nauvoo, and he said that he had been commanded multiple times that it was time for that practice to be implemented and restored among the Latter-day Saints. In general, when he taught the principle to someone, he invited them, encouraged them to pray about it, to receive their own witness and confirmation. And while most of the people who he taught plural marriage to during this period initially were very shocked and maybe even resistant, we also have many accounts of men and women receiving manifestations, receiving testimonies for themselves that this was something that they should do.

So it’s introduced confidentially, and Joseph invites people to seek their own spiritual confirmation before entering the practice. How does the experience of living in a plural marriage change once the saints come to Utah?

The biggest change is probably with the growth of numbers of people that are involved in plural marriage and with the openness with which it is lived. Plural marriage was always controlled and authorized by the President of the Church through the keys that he held. And so it was something that had to be approved through the appropriate priesthood channels. It wasn’t something that anyone could just do by themselves. People were free to reject it or to accept plural marriage. Many people chose not to enter plural marriage and remain faithful members of the Church.

What can we say about a typical polygamous family?

It’s hard to say that there was a typical polygamous family, but statistically speaking, what we can say is that most plural families involved a husband and perhaps two or three wives at most. The very large plural families were not the norm. Some families lived all together in the same household. Others may have lived in close proximity to each other, and some lived in completely different communities. So the living arrangements varied quite a bit. People who practiced plural marriage were human beings, just like we all are. And some did find a lot of joy, were very loving and generous and happy in their relationships. At other times, it didn’t work out so well. And in those cases, and especially because leaders knew that plural marriage could be very difficult for women, and there was quite a lot of leeway and provision for divorce among polygamous.

The practice of plural marriage by the Mormans was very controversial during the 19th century. What can you tell us about that national context?

Joseph Smith Polgamy timeline; When they first announced that they were practicing plural marriage, they were here in Utah, relatively isolated. And so it took a while for the controversy to build. And at first, there weren’t even any laws against polygamy or plural marriage. But over the following decades, the national government passed a series of increasingly strident or punitive laws against plural marriage and began enforcing them aggressively. The Latter-day Saints response, at first, was to say, This is a religious practice. This is protected by the Constitution under the free exercise of religion. Finally, the Supreme Court ruled against that, and that brought in a period during the 1880s that became known as the Raid, when the federal government aggressively pursued and prosecuted those who were practicing plural marriage.

So we know over time that there’s a lot of pressure put on the Latter Day Saints who were practicing plural marriage. What happens to the Latter Day Saints to get them to a point where they’re willing to give up this principle?

By 1890, they were faced with a very simple choice. They could continue to practice plural marriage, but if they did, they would lose the temples because the government was going to confiscate all of the church’s property, including the temples. And that would stop the work of salvation for the dead.

How does President Woodruff go about resolving that?

What should he do? It was something that he prayed and considered and counseled with the other brethren about for quite some time. But finally, in the fall of 1890, he did receive a revelation that resulted in a statement known as the manifesto, and that began the process of ending plural marriage. Although it took some time for the full implications to be made clear.

Interesting. So that’s been well over a century since the Church has taught plural marriage, and most of that time the main message as a people has been to say, We don’t do that anymore. That’s not us. And maybe that stopped us from thinking a lot about the legacy of Joseph Smith for the Church, for Latter Day Saints, as a people. What would you say that legacy is?

Well, I think first and foremost, it’s a legacy of sacrifice for families and commitment to covenants. It was something that forged the Latter-day Saints into a cohesive and close-knit community. And it was something that produced a large generation of faithful Latter-day saints who have continued to bless the Church themselves and their descendants for generations.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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