Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Why It’s So Hard to Talk about Polygamy

Why It’s So Hard to Talk about Polygamy

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 10, 2012

We had a survey a couple of months ago about what Keepa readers would like to have addressed here. Hands down, by a margin of something like 5 to 1 over any other suggestion, the request was polygamy. So, I’ve been gathering stories about plural marriage as it was lived and how/why/when/by whom it was taught.

But you haven’t seen any of that appear yet, have you?

Plural marriage turns out to be the hardest subject by far I’ve ever wanted to address – not because the topic itself is so hard, I think, but because I’m afraid of where some of the comments will lead. I’m sure regular readers will be able to discuss this as we have anything else – violence, race, mission monstrosities – but I don’t have the same expectations of others, and I don’t look forward to trolls and modern polygamists and mockers.

So why is it so hard to talk about polygamy, even here among friends? Some ideas, in no particular order, which may serve as guidelines for discussion of upcoming posts. I’m spelling them out here to have a handy place to refer commenters unfamiliar with Keepa and its culture:

Conflation of historical polygamy with modern polygamy. Our ancestors, whether biological or cultural, made tremendous sacrifices to adapt to the practice of plural marriage. I’d like to understand those ancestors better, and honor their commitment to following prophetic guidance, which means speaking positively about plural marriage as practiced historically by the Latter-day Saints.

But speaking positively of historical polygamy is very easily misunderstood as speaking positively of polygamy in general, including unauthorized modern polygamy. None of us likes having our people confused with those who currently practice plural marriage, and there’s a risk that speaking positively of historical experience and teaching may be misconstrued as approval or endorsement of apostate groups or individuals who practice polygamy today.

Keepa continues as it started: a blog for believing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and friends who are courteous, sympathetic, and affectionate of us as a people. We had occasional problems early on with a few visitors who tried to use Keepa to promote an acceptance of modern polygamy; that was, is, and will remain unacceptable. Commenters who either attack the Church for its historic practices, or who attempt to use posts about plural marriage to promote modern apostate practices, will be banned.

I’m no expert. The roots of our historical plural marriage practices were laid down by Joseph Smith in a time and place about which I am no expert – for professional reasons I have deliberately concentrated on post-1847 history (there are already so many people working on the Joseph Smith era that chances of my being able to make a genuine contribution are just about nil). I have a general understanding of our early polygamic history, enough to be comfortable as a practicing Latter-day Saint, but I’m no expert. Upcoming posts will feature the lives and trials and experiences of Latter-day Saints of the late 19th century – but we aren’t going to get far into Joseph Smith’s own marriages or the origins of plural marriage. Regular commenters can bring up anything (whether or not I can respond is another question), but unfamiliar commenters who want to make unflattering charges against Joseph Smith will not be given an opportunity to take advantage of my unpreparedness to debate the details. Unflattering charges against Joseph Smith or other early church members have no place here at Keepa. Live with it.

The “ick” factor. Most of the time when polygamy is mentioned around the Bloggernacle, it is with a shudder of distaste, even disgust. That’s fine. People can’t help their emotional reactions, I suppose.

However, comments by those who don’t normally support Keepa, which can be summarized as “Oh, how horrible!” or “How awful for women!” are not solicited.

When it comes to marriage practices, most of us find acceptable the things we were raised with, and find unacceptable the things that were presented to us as taboo. Most of us, for instance, would shudder at the idea of marrying a first or second cousin – that’s a taboo for the culture in which most of us were raised. Yet for a very great number of people in a very great number of places, such marriages are not taboo, and may even be highly desirable.

Many of our polygamous ancestors married sisters, or other closely related women, and the 19th century press expressed immense horror at that practice, above and beyond the factor of plural marriage. That’s because canon law in many times and places has followed the rules laid out in the Mosaic law, which forbid a man from marrying two women (even serially) who were too closely related, either to himself or to each other. Yet most of us would not think twice today if a widower married his deceased wife’s sister. It is not taboo any longer, at least in our secular society.

My view of polygamy is that it is no more or less “icky” than any other kind of marriage – people who are raised to think of it with revulsion are going to be repulsed. People were grew up believing that plural marriage was acceptable in its time and in its place, with proper prophetic authorization, are less likely to be repulsed.

I am not repulsed. Therefore, I do not welcome comments that say only “I am repulsed.” If commenters want to make that point along with some valid statement, fine, but we’ll have no chorus of “ick” and “yuck” and “blech,” okay?


Okay, that’s what makes it hard for me to begin a conversation about plural marriage. What do you think we can and should expect from such a discussion?



  1. I’m happy to enter the discussion on Keepa’s terms. I want to understand and appreciate my polygamous ancestors better. If this makes any sense at all, I think you know one of my current family history obsessions is pinning down the father of my direct line ancestor where my surname originates – in an illegitimate birth in 1789 Wales (and I’ve almost got him!) Whatever those circumstances were, and they could have been pretty ugly, I still feel a deep respect and love for those people because I wouldn’t be here without them – and neither they nor I can be made perfect without each other. Historic polygamy isn’t even as bad as all that from my perspective, yet the same principles apply.

    Comment by Grant — May 10, 2012 @ 7:45 am

  2. I meant “historical” polygamy. I wish I had an editor.

    Comment by Grant — May 10, 2012 @ 8:00 am

  3. The apologist in me is tempted to ask for stories that show that sexual gratification was the last thing on the minds of the male participants. But I don’t think your intentions are apologetic or should be.

    So just knowing how the participants felt about it and how they adjusted to it, without any driving agenda, will be fascinating.

    Comment by Vader — May 10, 2012 @ 8:27 am

  4. It was pretty historic, too, Grant. Maybe even epic. :)

    Yup. I don’t think 19th century polygamy is anything to be ashamed of (except in those occasional instances where there were abuses, which bear their own shame). Embarrassment and not knowing how to distinguish between the past and the present has probably caused a lot of hesitation in discussing plural marriage candidly.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 10, 2012 @ 8:31 am

  5. One other point that I think is often behind the emotional reactions to 19th century polygamy is that there is a certain unspoken fear in the minds of some that someday (in the Celestial Kingdom, perhaps) that they will be required to enter into polygamy. Any positive acknowledgement of historical polygamy seems to validate that fear, and thus causes a negative reaction – if you discredit or disparage the historical, it assuages fear of the future.

    And nothing could be further from the truth – understanding what those ancestors did in a positive or understanding light certainly does not imply that we must return to those principles or that anyone would be forced into something they find revolting by the Lord. I know some General Authorities of that era made certain comments that imply it essential for everyone, but just as we no longer consider animal sacrifice essential to salvation (since old testament times) and we would not interpret ancient texts on the topic as binding on us today, neither should we on polygamy.

    I look forward to the series.

    Comment by Dustin — May 10, 2012 @ 8:34 am

  6. I grew up in a family that respected our polygamous ancestors. That meant we talked about them freely without condemnation. My mother even made a poster sized chart once for a church lesson that showed the wives and children of one relative. But while there was no condemnation, neither was there a call for its return. It was merely an observation of what they did.

    Polygamy was an open topic at family reunions, but usually as a way of describing how we were related. And there were humorous anecdotes about polygamous family life. More embarrassing, and less openly discussed, was the frequent closely related marriages (cousins, both 1st and 2nd), which when brought up resulted in lots of eye rolling.

    My wife’s family is not as comfortable discussing polygamy. When they do, they invariably point out they were descended through the first wife, an attitude which I think perpetuates the less favorable stereotypes of plural marriage.

    All of this goes back to say your attitude about discussing polygamy is not unique. There are Mormons who respect their polygamous ancestors and their devotion without wishing to bring it back.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — May 10, 2012 @ 8:51 am

  7. I find myself drawn more to the nuts-and-bolts of plural marriage as lived on a day-to-day basis. What were the housing arrangments? Marital arrangements? How did the wives really relate to each other? To their children? How did the wives support themselves? What about the question of wife-based hierarchies? Was polgamy experienced differently depending on one’s social/economic/religious standing? What happened to families when the Manifesto was announced? (In the case of my own great-gandmother, from what I understand, it was pretty devastating.) And what about polygamy in the Mexican colonies after 1890? After 1904? Etc.? All this is to say that I’d be interested in the practical realities of life in polygamy.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 10, 2012 @ 9:08 am

  8. I look forward to this.

    Comment by WBMW — May 10, 2012 @ 9:10 am

  9. One reason I find–and I suspect many others find–a discussion of polygamy problematic, is that the modern Church (with a capital C) has never addressed it honestly and openly. Not when and why it started, nor when and why it ended. Pick any aspect of the topic, and it’s shrouded in misleading statements, vagarities, and secrecy. I suspect ‘they’ don’t find it any easier to discuss than you do…

    I have my own hang-ups with “the Principle” and can’t say I even have a testimony that it was ever an inspired practice. That said, I have a substantial number of faithful polygamist ancestors who lived plural marriage and all it entailed at great personal sacrifice. And I cannot discount their multiple private spiritual experiences that confirmed that this is what God wanted for them. Even though it often led to a life of hardship.

    I look forward to this series and hope that the thoughts and discussions it provokes can help me sort out my own views and feelings.

    Comment by The Other Clark — May 10, 2012 @ 9:20 am

  10. I am interested to read this series, especially to see if others had similar experiences to my ancestors. My great-grandfather was the oldest son in a polygamous family and he got to shoulder the load of providing for the two wives and children when his dad was in the Utah Penn. He didn’t let any of his 4 sons serve missions because he felt the family had already done enough sacrifice for the church (due to his experience in the 1880s). And on another branch of the family tree, there is the 3rd great-grandmother and the other wife who had to deal with their husband being gone for several years without letters or monetary support to sell produce to the miners in Nevada and then he came home and they told him life was just grand without him, so he should leave again.

    Comment by mahana — May 10, 2012 @ 9:47 am

  11. My son came home from school about a week ago saying that his Utah history teacher taught the class that polygamy started because of the men being called away on the Mormon Battalion. Now I know 7th graders generally don’t know what the heck their teachers are saying so I really hope that’s not what she said.

    Anyway, as a result I had my first discussion on the topic with my son. I explained it as I understood it and made sure to throw in a comment about post-manifesto polygamy since I don’t think that that would bother kids as long as they’re given correct information up front.

    While I do think that church curriculum could be better about this, the notion that WE, or the CHURCH, all KNOW how and why polygamy began and ended is a erroneous idea. No doubt many people have opinions on these things, but I’m sure they vary greatly, even among the Brethren. That said, I still think it wise to teach what we DO know: ie that Joseph Smith practiced it, which is almost never taught it church.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 10, 2012 @ 9:57 am

  12. Although I’m interested in historical polygamy, I’m much more interested in what we believe today about polygamy and the afterlife. Given the temple sealing policies that say, ultimately, we seal all husbands to all wives, and all wives to all husbands, coupled with words that seem to say if we “keep our covenants” those sealings will be valid and in force, it seems that our current doctrine is full blown polygamy in the eternities, but for some unknown reason, serial monogamy in mortality. For everyone who cites an “ick” factor when addressing polygamy, I haven’t read of one widow or widower, previously sealed and then remarried, who says they wouldn’t want to spend eternity with all spouses they had in mortality. That’s polygamy, pure and simple. I don’t think we’ll ever know in this life why polygamy was practiced in the early days of the church. But I would like to know if and why it will be practiced in the next.

    Comment by Wondering — May 10, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  13. Thanks for the thoughtful comments — some will help me know what is of interest, and others have identified some other legitimate reasons for the difficulty in talking about plural marriage. If I could count on all readers having your attitudes, this would be easy!

    As always, I prefer to tell stories about people and their experiences, rather than attempting any comprehensive whys and wherefores. I’ll leave you to draw that out from the examples I hope to provide.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 10, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  14. I appreciate the thoughtful introduction to this series. I, too, share the fear that Dustin mentions of a return of the principle in modern times, and I also have questions and somewhat informed (or misinformed, just as likely) opinions about the topic. It is a difficult subject. I have ancestors on my mother’s side who were polygamists, but nothing on my father’s side that I am aware of. I think that I still have much to learn and am interested in the nuts and bolts, as you say, of how it worked on a day to day basis. I’ve gotten a pretty good glimpse in my recent research into Joseph F. Smith and his wives, but I know his case is probably typical in some ways, but not so much in others.

    Thank you for setting the ground rules. You always do a good job of prepping us for the good and the bad, and letting us know how we should behave and remember to play well with others.

    Comment by kevinf — May 10, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  15. Wondering, that’s exactly the kind of question I don’t expect to address — *I* don’t know enough about the afterlife, and doubt anyone does, to speak definitively on that aspect. It may be possible for me to collect some statements from church leaders at various points and present them as so-and-so’s point of view as of such-and-such date, but I’m afraid that’s as far as I can go. I don’t intend to invite speculation from anyone, either.

    Anything more is far beyond the scope of my powers or my purposes with Keepa.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 10, 2012 @ 11:37 am

  16. I know the series on the wives of Joseph Smith at fMh has been an interesting read, but virtually all commentators to the posts have maligned him and called every name under the sun. However, most of those wives (young and old) went on and married other men (often other prominent church leaders of the day), lived in polygamous households, bore plenty of children, etc. As bad as we want to paint the picture of polygamy as practiced in the early days of the church, (and I know there were certainly abuses) it seems that people exercised their agency and participated. I don’t have any polygamous ancestors as I am a convert to the church. I don’t have a dog in the polygamy witch hunt, so it’s sort of nice to sit back and hopefully be objective about all of it. I guess that’s also why I’m not so much concerned with water that’s long passed under the bridge. I, too, would be interested in the nuts and bolts of every day polygamous life (okay – prurient interest and rubber necking) as you would think there would have been some sort of manual of sorts dealing with all the issues that would arise. But, like I said in first comment, I’m fascinated by what we purport to believe today. How are Elders Perry, Nelson and Oaks going to shake out? What incentive does Elder Scott have not to remarry when his fellow Quorum members seem happy with their decisions to remarry? President Hinckley’s father is sealed to four wives, but President Hinckley is only sealed to one. Why would Bryant Hinckley merit 4 wives in the eternities but Gordon B. Hinckley would not? Is it a question of merit, anyway? And if we can remarry with impunity here in mortality, what makes us think our predeceased spouses aren’t “remarrying” in the Spirit World? I could go on and on. Can’t wait till we have a little more revelation in this regard.

    Comment by Wondering — May 10, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  17. Wondering, regarding Joseph Smith’s wives. From reading Todd Compton’s book (which is very good) Joseph’s wives that married polygamously after his death sure seemed a lot better off than the ones who were in monogamous relationships. I think too often people create caricatures of idealic monogamy and demonic polygamy, when the reality was certainly more complicated. So I also look forward to Ardis fleshing that out some more.

    You ask interesting questions about the afterlife, but like Ardis said, I don’t think definitive answers can be given. But study and prayer can help a lot.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 10, 2012 @ 11:53 am

  18. Wondering wrote “As bad as we want to paint the picture of polygamy as practiced in the early days of the church . . .”

    That reminds me of the old Lone Ranger joke: “Tonto, we’re surrounded by Indians. What are we gonna do?”

    “Whattya mean ‘we,’ white man?”

    From what I know of Ardis, I don’t think she wants to paint a “bad” picture of polygamy–and the OP says as much. She’ll tell the stories and let the facts speak for themselves.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 10, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

  19. I only knew of two families among my ancestors who practiced polygamy, but I recently did a survey of 6 generations and found two more. I have had to comb through the few facts about their lives that we have, to try to get a grasp on what normal life was like for these people. The gold strike is when you find something written in their own words about what they felt about living The Principle, and it is indeed a rarity. What this usually amounts to (in my case) is one or two sentences that say something about how hard it is to sacrifice for the Lord, but how strong it can make them. These were folks who didn’t leave any evidence of whining about enduring unfairness or even abuse. I would be most interested in anything that shows how those who lived polygamy felt about their experience, as well as anything that displays how they managed the daily practice of it.

    And I agree that pre-1847 polygamy is one messy, well-picked-over field of study.

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — May 10, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

  20. I can’t wait to read what you post for us Ardis! I LOVE biographies of all sorts. Just reading about the trials and choices people faced and made and how those played out in their lives is fascinating to me.

    On my side of the family there is one polygamous marriage – George Francis Gibbs who married Ida Snow {daughter of Lorenzo Snow} then Sarah Worthen. For reasons not really known, Ida up and left for the East leaving her two sons. George and Ida did divorce eventually.

    My husband’s side has loads. Thankfully most did leave written records or gave interviews to children/grandchildren so we have a good idea of how relationships worked or didn’t work.

    Joseph Stacy Murdock had six wives. The sixth was an adopted Indian daughter, Pernetta, that he and his first wife raised. Are you familiar with that story? It’s a doozy!

    My husband’s aunt recently found information on their Witt family – and all the jealousies and strife that happened between the two wives. It is like reading a soap opera!

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — May 10, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

  21. Hey, Ardis, wouldn’t it be great if Chocolate wrote a guest post or two on this topic?? : )

    One practical result of Mormon polygamy is the creation of large, fairly loose family networks. For example, Mitt Romney, descended as he is from several polygamous families, must have tens of thousands of second and third and fourth cousins in the Church. How many people outside the extended Romney family would know they were related to him? Would it change their perception of him? Their level of political support?

    (What does that have to do with anything? I dunno. This is just a random musing about the results of polygamy 120 years later.)

    Comment by Amy T — May 10, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

  22. Definitely, Amy! Chocolate, how about it? Why don’t you write up an account of one of the family members you mention, and send it along as a guest post? You’ve got stories that the rest of us haven’t heard, and I guarantee that the feedback you get from readers makes the effort worthwhile! (Send to AEParshall [at] aol [dot] com)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 10, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

  23. I have plural marriages in all of my ancestral lines, sometimes two and maybe three generations of men had polygamist wives, and I’m not bragging when I say that I really DO descend from the first wife in every situation. My husband has polygamy on his mother’s side. We both have stories where the husband left the first wife and lived with the younger wife. He has a story (folk lore, maybe) of an ancestor who wanted to take a fourth wife, and the first wife locked him in a room in the house until he changed his mind. Some of the men in my line were forever colonizing,leaving the first wife at home, in charge of doling out the food to the rest of the wives and families. One of my great grandfathers married two sisters. They initially lived in Logan in a two-room house, with several children between them. Great grandma says the hardest part was when she got up and night to care for a small child and she had to walk past the bedroom where her sister was in bed with her husband.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — May 10, 2012 @ 11:52 pm

  24. Just last week my husband said he wished there was a Sunday School/Priesthood/RS lesson on polygamy so that our members could be taught some correct information. Most people still believe that only two or three percent of the men were in polygamy. During the Priesthood lesson last week on eternal marriage, the teacher quoted the scripture in D & C 132 on the “New and Everlasting Covenant.” Gary commented that originally, that meant plural marriage, and he got shot down. The teacher told him he was off base and didn’t know what he was talking about, and several other men told him that, too. It is like polygamy is a bad word and nobody wants to admit that the Church really practiced it.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — May 10, 2012 @ 11:54 pm

  25. I look forward to this series.

    Comment by David Y. — May 10, 2012 @ 11:56 pm

  26. The following is a letter in the LDS Archives (MS 7403, Ira K. Hillman). I wonder if Ira’s current wife was interviewed. I wonder what questions were asked by Bishop Harker.

    West Jordan Ward
    February 1th 1857
    President Brigham Young
    Br Ira K Hillman wishes to have permission to take another wife. I can recommend him to be a faithfull and _ _ _ _ _ jlick Man in the kingdom of our god and punctual in paying Tithing
    Yours Truly &c
    Joseph Harker, Bishop

    Comment by SteveR — May 11, 2012 @ 7:25 am

  27. I am a descendant of polygamy and grew up hearing about it and thinking of it as a normal marital option although no longer practiced. Assuming it was commanded of God, I have often pondered the reason for it and I have come to the conclusion that it was meant to teach compersion and along the way transcend jealously, selfishness, possessiveness and insecurity making us more Christlike. Critics often see this as a one sided double standard argument requiring women to become selfless but not men. But Joseph asked for other men’s wives and married already married women so plural marriage may have been headed toward both men and women having more than one spouse. I suspect there is little in the historical record about this but I would be interested in hearing about those who felt it taught selflessness. I’m looking forward to this series.

    Comment by Howard — May 11, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

  28. I am very appreciative that you are going to be doing a series such as this Ardis, and I think your introduction here was very proper and reverent to the topic.

    Being a convert, my perspective of polygamy is actually very open. I remember praying about it before I was baptized and receiving a testimony in the same manner which came as my testimony of The Book of Mormon and of Joseph Smith. I knew it was of God. However, I was a young man and didn’t realize that it was such a taboo subject within the Church itself. Having read extensively about its origins and early practice within the Church, I am thankful that you are going to be teaching it with the proper integrity that it deserves Ardis. Many people will gain much from the things you will share.

    Comment by Stan — May 11, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

  29. I’ll see what I can come up with Ardis. {I may be a bit nervous too…what a topic!}

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — May 11, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

  30. Dear Sister “Chocolate coated Cranium”,
    I sincerely hope that you will accept Ardis’ offer and share some of those incredible accounts of plural marriage from your and your husband’s family. What an opportunity to go back in time and get just a glimpse of the mechanics and emotions involved in this ‘peculiar institution’. These sisters can speak to us with all the candor and frankness they had when they were actually living out their mortal lives in Zion.

    I wouldn’t be a bit surprized to learn that they, (the plural wives), were happy to have their husband “out from under their feet” during those days that he spent away from her home and family. Such an attitude is hinted at in such historical novels as, “The Giant Joshua”, “Papa Married a Mormon”, and “The Kingdom or Nothing”.

    Evidently, there also was a time when there were enough plural wives who approved and supported ‘the Principle’ that they could fill the Tabernacle and hold a rally against the federal government’s heavy handed coercion to force the Church to abandon the practice. I have never read anything that ever said that the sisters were forced to attend that rally. Indeed, there may be somewhere deep in the bowels of the Church History Library a copy of the petition most, (perhaps all), of them signed to the Congress and the Federal Government. That would make a fine list of families who might still have such relevant journals and histories.

    There surely must be many first person accounts, (journals, letters, etc.) among the members of the Church which could, if organized, edited and published, make an exceptionally fine volume to give the world at large some lessons as to the living the Principle as it really operated in the lives of the pioneer Saints. They, (the non-members), probably still won’t like plural marriage, but they’ll have a far better understanding of it than they do now.
    So Sister CCC, please start the process by sharing some of your family treasures with us!

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — May 13, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

  31. Ardis, I sent a draft to you over a week ago and am wondering if you ever got it. I suspect it got lost in cyber-space.

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — July 25, 2012 @ 9:19 am

  32. It didn’t. I’m so sorry, Chocolate, not to have at least acknowledged it. I have it but haven’t been able to spend any time with it. I apologize for not getting back to you sooner.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 25, 2012 @ 10:14 am

  33. No problem, Ardis. It only me what, 2 months?, to get it you to begin with.

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — July 25, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

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