A personal answer from Gale.
Mormons (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) do not practice polygamy. However, during a fifty-year period of Mormon history, the practice of polygamy was commanded by the Lord through His prophets. The practice of polygamy was a crucible of testing for the Latter-day Saints. No one in the Church was eager to comply with the commandment, including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Those who accuse historical Mormons of practicing polygamy for their own sexual gratification are visualizing the opposite of the actual truth.
Recently, a sect has been in the news for its practice of polygamy. This sect has named itself The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and its members call themselves Mormons. They are the descendants of Mormons who refused to give up the practice of polygamy (plural marriage, or simply, “the principle”) in 1890, when the commandment was rescinded by the Lord. In actuality, they have no connection with the Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). They can usually be distinguished by the fact that they live in closely-guarded communities, and they dress in pioneer fashion. Real Mormons are found all over the world and are active in their communities and workplaces. They wear clothing that is fashionable in the cultures wherein they dwell.
Late Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley had this to say about fundamentalist sects:
“I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this Church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law. They know they are in violation of the law. They are subject to its penalties. The Church, of course, has no jurisdiction whatever in this matter.
“If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church. An article of our faith is binding upon us. It states, ‘We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law’ (Articles of Faith 1:12). One cannot obey the law and disobey the law at the same time.
“There is no such thing as a ‘Mormon Fundamentalist.’ It is a contradiction to use the two words together.”
A Brief History of Mormon Polygamy
The religious history of the earth can be divided into “dispensations.” Every dispensation has had at least one prophet to lead it, who delivered the word of God to the people he served. We now live in the “last dispensation of time” before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This is the eleventh hour, the time to prepare for Christ’s return and the ushering in of His millennial reign. Joseph Smith was chosen by God to be the first prophet of this dispensation, a dispensation which would include “the restoration of all things,” including the priesthood power and authority to act in God’s name. While Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, and while he was working on a translation of the Bible, he often had questions regarding biblical meanings or ancient practices of God’s chosen people. It was at one of these moments that he enquired of the Lord why it was acceptable for the ancient prophets to have more than one wife. The Lord answered him as early as 1831, but the answer contained a caveat, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132, which wasn’t dictated by the Prophet until 1843:
“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David, and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines─
“Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter. Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same” (vs. 1-3).
The Lord went on to explain the nature of the eternal marriage covenant, wherein marriage performed on earth can be binding eternally in heaven. God then explained that whatever He commands is righteousness, as long as His will is followed.
“God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises [that Abraham would have many seed]. Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it.
“Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness [Genesis 22:2] (vs. 34-36).
“David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord” (v. 39).
Joseph Smith was often torn between the conventions of the society in which he lived, the religious convictions of the people at large, and the revelations he received on a fairly continual basis. His “first vision” ignited a storm of controversy and persecution against him, because he saw two separate beings ─ God the Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ ─ contrary to the popular notion of a trinity. Now he was commanded to live an ancient law in a society that was both western and Victorian, even while 80% of the world’s population lived in polygamous societies. He made the attempt to reveal the revelation to the members of the Church, but they responded poorly, even petitioning him to recant. He attempted to live the law himself. He attempted to teach it to his most faithful leaders. When Brigham Young heard the doctrine, he said he envied dead corpses in caskets, but he finally complied with the law.
When the Latter-day Saints were driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois, and they had resettled in isolation outside the United States in Utah Territory, they began to openly practice plural marriage. Polygamy was never practiced generally in the Church ─ it was mostly the leaders who took on the responsibility. Most men who did practice polygamy took only two or three wives. Financial support was important. Plural marriage provided for widows, too. Families varied as to their happiness and peace in the home. Some women found the presence of other wives to be liberating, since duties could be divided, and took the opportunity to educate themselves or to work.
Eventually, the U.S. government cracked down so hard on the practice, that the Saints could not vote; the Church’s property was confiscated; and participants were jailed. In 1990 Prophet Wilford Woodruff went to the Lord about the worsening oppression. He received a vision of what would happen if the Saints continued to live the law. Men would not be able to nurture their families or the Church, and the buildings (including the temples), would be lost. The Lord rescinded the law, and President Woodruff issued the First Manifesto, to the approval of the membership of the Church, renouncing the practice of plural marriage. A few members continued the practice, however, so in 1904, Prophet Joseph F. Smith attached the punishment of excommunication, effectively ending the practice.
Does the Book of Mormon condemn the practice of polygamy?
The Book of Mormon does not condemn the practice of polygamy. Critics of the Church like to cite a section of the Book of Jacob in the Book of Mormon:
“Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts” (Jacob 2:27-28).
But the critics ignore the following verses:
“For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things. For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands. And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Jacob 2:30-32, emphasis added).
What about HBO’s TV show, Big Love?
There is a small population belonging to fundamentalist sects who live among the population at large and who practice plural marriage. They are not members of the Mormon Church. Again, Mormons who practice plural marriage are excommunicated. The show, Big Love, consistently portrays gross falsehoods regarding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Read more.)
Also see the article on this site called About Polygamy.
For more on polygamy, including personal accounts, go to Mormon-Polygamy.org.