The Dysfunctional Doctrine of Mormon Polygamy

Continuing our discussion about Mormon polygamy, on June 29 (2011) Doug Gibson, from Ogden’s Standard-Examiner, recounted the toll the 19th century practice of polygamy took on LDS marriages and hearts.” He wrote,

“Polygamy was a contradictory doctrine, and extremely dysfunctional. Brigham Young once said that he wished it wasn’t a doctrine, but later also raged that those who disbelieved in polygamy — and even monogamous [sic] LDS men — were in danger of damnation. And polygamy led to divorce among LDS elite leaders in numbers that would shock today.”

Citing Richard Van Wagoner’s book, Mormon Polygamy: A History, Mr. Gibson illustrated the paradox “for faithful LDS women who reluctantly embraced the doctrine as a commandment of God yet suffered personal heartache and financial pain due to their husband’s extracurricular wives” in the story of Emmeline B. Wells. Emmeline was the seventh of fifteen plural wives of Daniel H. Wells, a member of the LDS First Presidency.

Publicly, Emmeline was an advocate for polygamy, writing that it

“gives women the highest opportunities for self-development, exercise of judgment, and arouses latent faculties, making them truly cultivated in the actual realities of life, more independent in thought and mind, noble and unselfish.”

But privately, in her journal, Emmeline shared her heart:

“O, if my husband could only love me even a little and not seem to be perfectly indifferent to any sensation of that kind. He cannot know the cravings of my nature; he is surrounded with love on every side, and I am cast out.”

Mr. Gibson did not include further heart wrenching words from Emmeline, but Richard Van Wagoner did. Emmeline’s journal continued,

“O my poor aching heart when shall it rest its burden only on the Lord…Every other avenue seems closed against me.” (p. 94)

Ten days later, on her twenty-second wedding anniversary (October 10, 1874), Emmeline wrote in her diary,

“Anniversary of my marriage with Pres. Wells. O how happy I was then how much pleasure I anticipated and how changed alas are things since that time, how few thoughts I had then have ever been realized, and how much sorrow I have known in place of the joy I looked forward to.” (Mormon Polygamy, 94)

Emmeline was married and devoted to Daniel for nearly 40 years, four decades during which he had “essentially ignored” her. But within a year of his death, an aging Daniel Wells renewed companionship with his wife Emmeline — and died too soon of pneumonia. Emmeline lamented,

“Only memories, only the coming and going and parting at the door. The joy when he came the sorrow when he went as though all the light died out of my life. Such intense love he has manifested towards me of late years. Such a remarkable change from the long ago – when I needed him so much more.” (Mormon Polygamy, 95)

Biblically speaking, in marriage a man and a woman complete each other – the two become one flesh (Genesis 2:22-24). The husband is to love his wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” cherish her, and hold fast to her  (Ephesians 5:25-31). Mormon polygamy made this virtually impossible. Many women of early Mormonism lived their lives in profound sorrow because God’s pattern for marriage was ignored as Mormon leaders “[taught] for doctrines the commandments of men.”

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
This entry was posted in Early Mormonism, Polygamy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Dysfunctional Doctrine of Mormon Polygamy

  1. Kate says:

    I have a great, great, great, Grandfather who was married to only one woman for many years. He had 6 children with her. In their late 40’s he took a second wife and moved her to a different town, miles away from the first wife. The first wife was devastated. The second wife was barely 20. He basically ignored his first wife and family for years. She was left to provide for her children. There goes the theory that there were just so many widows who couldn’t make it without a man! She finally divorced him and married a non member. The story was told by one of his sons from the first wife. The pain of it all was with him for the rest of his life. We will never know the extent of the heartache for these women and children.

  2. gpark says:

    When my husband and I were newlyweds we talked alot about what made a marriage the way it should be. We knew that the wife should submit to her husband and the husband love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. (See Ephesians 5.) I had so much love and respect for Mike that, truly, I enjoyed doing all that I could to be a helper for him. I was amazed, though, at how seriously he took his responsibility to love me. When I was pregnant with our first child and oh so sick, I would go to work, come home thinking, “I’ll lay down for just a minute and then cook.” Instead, I’d often fall asleep and then awaken to the smell of something wonderful cooking! When the kids were babies, Mike would pack up their diapers, toys, etc. and say, “I think you need a little time to yourself , so the kids and I are going out for awhile.” When I was homeschooling our two children, I would find notes on the counter telling me how much Mike appreciated my working with the children and how much progress he could see them making. In other words, Mike lived out his love for me in wonderful ways that I simply cannot see a man with 4 wives or 6 or 10 wives doing. I am blessed!

  3. Mike R says:

    Kate, I have to agree with you that Mormon women really had a heavy burden and
    plenty of heartache enduring the polygamist lifestyle. I can’t help but feel sorry for
    them but also to respect their ability to raise their children despite the hardships.
    These women were misled into believing a counterfeit gospel which was received
    from men who followed their own personal convictions, their own reasoning, and
    persuaded good decent women to submit to this “restored ” gospel . Not wanting to
    offend God they went along with the prophet teaching. This behavior has no place
    in the New covenant which Jesus inaugurated by His shed blood on the cross and
    resurrection from the dead. This “gospel ” is the Mormon gospel, not the gospel
    of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sharon said it perfectly where she said “…as Mormon
    leaders taught for doctrines the commandments of men. ” Mormon leaders have
    become detours to the Mormon people influencing them to veer off from finding the
    true gospel, the good news of Jesus . Heb.7:25

  4. falcon says:

    Polygamy was a convenient way for Joseph Smith to satisfy his sexual hunger by spiritualizing it. It’s a sad thing that people will believe a lie, rejecting the truth. As for polygamy, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be very good at it. The guys that are into it, can’t possibly be thinking of the women they are involved with. Did BY satisfy the emotional needs of the 55 women he was married to. Went he ran wasn’t much better than a whore house except the women didn’t get paid. In polygamy it’s all about the man becoming a god. Modern day Salt Lake City style Mormonism has modified the “principle” but only out of pressure from the rest of society. Would the SLC bunch permit polygamy if the band was lifted? I don’t know. The LDS church seems to want to push a clean, wholesome image. Polygamy doesn’t quite fit the bill.
    I was wondering, however, how any state can go after the practitioners of polygamy if the man has one legal wife. If a man lives with ten women, for example, while married legally to only one, how can the government put a stop to the living arrangement. The dude could say he’s renting the women rooms or some such thing. If the women are of legal age, what’s to say they can’t all cohabitate. I’m not advocating it of course, but how can it be prosecuted and who would bother in today’s moral climate?

  5. I’ve wondered the same thing. Not that I’m for it, obviously, but if the guy is only “spiritually” married to other women, then what could he possibly be arrested for? As long as the women are legal and consenting, then I don’t see why cops show up at their doors? And really, if gay marriage is ever allowed in all states, I don’t see why plural marriage wouldn’t be included with it. And if it is ever legalized, I wonder if the mainstream church would pick it back up again, since it’s a “heavenly principle” and they’re just “abiding by the laws of the land”? I doubt it, since it would probably mean a massive loss in members and converts. But still. The principle is still there. If it’s so offensive that they wouldn’t want to practice it now, why believe in it?

  6. falcon says:

    I can never quite figure out how Mormons can claim that they will become gods when the avenue to becoming (a god), polygamy, is now forbidden by the LDS church. They believe Joseph Smith had this revelation about the nature of God and how personal deification could be achieved and then they drop it. I know, it’s all about progressive revelation, but to me it’s just a huge cop-out for bowing to political and societal pressure.
    Even though our culture is changing regarding what is considered acceptable and what is not, I don’t believe many women in our modern day society would be willing to enter into plural marriage. I imagine there’s always that subset of women who can be snookered into believing that it’s God’s will for their lives. Just think about what it takes to keep women in polygamy cults in the fold. First of all they have to be born into the cult and conditioned to accept it. Secondly they have to be convinced that they will go to hell if they leave.
    I’m afraid in too many of these polygamy cults the women are little more than breeding stock.

  7. Kate says:

    falcon and marriedamormon,
    You both make a very good point, however, you aren’t thinking like a Mormon. Mormons practice polygamy every day in their temples. It IS being practiced by the LDS. Mormons believe they will be polygamists in the CK. I used to believe, and every Mormon that I know believes, that polygamy will be practiced again, and so will the law of consecration. If it becomes legal, I believe it will be seen as coming from their god. I would expect a revelation shortly after. As for gay marriages, I highly doubt the LDS church will ever approve of that.

    I for one am glad that there are laws against polygamy and these people can be prosecuted. There is a polygamist family that did a t.v. show here in Utah called Sister Wives. The man has 4 wives and they are now suing the State of Utah for discrimination or some such thing. It’s been on the news but I haven’t really paid much attention. They believe they aren’t hurting anyone and they have a wonderful life and they are all consenting adults. That’s all fine and good, except for one thing. They have children. This is the reason I’m thankful for the laws. Who really loses in this situation? Right! The children. If consenting adults want to hook up and be polygamists, that’s fine, but DO NOT HAVE CHILDREN AND DO NOT FORCE THOSE CHILDREN INTO THE LIFESTYLE! I’m very passionate about that part of polygamy. I feel so bad for those girls who are forced to marry old grandpas and I also feel sorry for the boys who are pushed out of the flock so they aren’t competing with the old grandpas! It’s twisted!

  8. Mike R says:

    It is rather sad that a prominent women , one who would call herself a
    christian who supposedly believed that the gospel preached by Jesus’ original apostles ,
    the good news , was restored, would admit in privacy what she did about
    what Mormons called a vital part of that Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have read
    where, when the news of polygamy finally was formally announced to the
    world , that in Great Britain, that over 15,000 members were purged from
    Church rolls . Apparently, those Mormons recognized “another gospel ”
    [ Gal. 1:8 ] , when they saw one.

  9. Kate says:

    You know Mike, I can’t help but wonder how long Mormonism would have lasted if Joseph Smith had not been killed. He seemed to be growing bolder and more “out there” and I’m wondering what sort of weirdness he would have come up with. Would he have stayed in the area or moved West. The growth of the mainstream church came from European immigrants wanting to make a better life. What happens when you travel all that way, maybe in handcarts, and then you have no way of leaving once you are here? I have read where some of the women wanted to go home and were told they couldn’t until they paid back the church for their passage. Well how were they supposed to do that? It’s too bad that members here weren’t purged from the church rolls as well.

  10. Sandi B. says:

    Kate, I doubt that morminism would have the converts they do today, if the true history of the chruch was taught by the missionaries to begin with. They do not teach about Joseph Smiths real history or his practicing of polygamy, nor do they teach the new convert coming in about the doctrine of being able to become a (little g) god. They santitize everything, from the story of the first vision to Joseph Smiths death as a “martyr” to the happy little “eternal families” without ever teaching the truth about their religion.

  11. Mike R says:

    Kate, I think you may be correct about Mormonism’s future had Joseph Smith
    not be killed. The Church was in turmoil because of his dishonesty with how
    he was dealing with polygamy coming to light etc. I think some of his ” new
    light ” on God’s nature also played a part in all this too. The church had been
    radically altered from when he founded it in 1830. As I mentioned earlier my
    heart goes all to all those Mormon women who endured such hardships in
    raising their children in a plural marriage environment . They fell for a
    false gospel, but their resolve in caring for their children was exemplary
    as mothers. Mormon leaders , by adding their doctrine of polygamy onto
    the gospel of Jesus Christ, turned His gospel into “another ” gospel.[2Jn.1:9 ]

  12. Mike R says:

    Sandi B. , I think Mormon leaders have attempted to sanitize their history
    to a large extent. This is becoming more difficult to do as more info is becoming
    available to the average person . Conscientious Mormon authors have helped
    in this area in the last few years . Concerning polygamy, and how it has been
    avoided in discussion among Mormons, Mormon author B. Carmon Hardy relates
    how he visited the LDS Museum of Church History and Art, and asks why there
    were’nt any exhibits relating to polygamy. He was told that that part of the Church’s
    history was best kept out of sight for the same reason families lock portraits of
    embarrassing ancestors away in their closets ! Strange way treat a principle that
    close friend of Joseph Smith, William Clayton , called, ” the most holy and important
    doctrine ever revealed to man on the earth.”

  13. falcon says:

    Mormons who find out the truth about Mormonism, especially polygamy, have a few options. They can do denial which is pretty hard to do given the evidence. They can do the “that was a long time ago” routine coupled with “we don’t practice that any more”, or they can attempt to justify and rationalize polygamy as many Mormons who have posted here in the past attempt to do.
    Now another option is to recognize the truth of the matter and leave the church. I read the testimony of a guy who had been a devout Mormon and was listening to some history of the church tapes while riding in his car and about threw-up when the part about the fourteen year old girl becoming one of Smith’s wives was discussed. The reason it was so nauseating to him was because he had a fourteen year old daughter and he personalized what Smith had done.
    No amount of visits to the bishop could erase that image from his head.
    What generally happens in these cases is that the person then begins to delve deeper into other matters concerning the LDS church and the preponderance of evidence that Mormonism is a total sham, collapses the person’s faith.
    Unfortunately too many of these folks just sour on religion and walk away from God entirely. I have some sympathy because I did much the same thing when I left the Catholic Church as a young man. But God wouldn’t let me go that easily. He eventually drew me to Himself through the Holy Spirit and provided me with new spiritual life through Jesus.
    The atheists who show-up here occasionally don’t really bother me much because I know it’s not my job to convince them to turn their lives over to God.
    That’s what He does.

  14. Mike R says:

    I’m scratching my head at this trying to figure out , what’s going on here? :
    Ensign magazine , Nov.1999, p.80 says of the Church manual, ” Teachings
    of the Presidents of the Church– Brigham Young ” , that this manual contains
    doctrine and principles that are rich and relevant for LDS today, it is superb
    for teaching…..
    Well, when we look into this manual do we find teachings from B.Y. on a very
    fundamental doctrine he championed , namely polygamy ? No. According to
    an article in the Idaho State Journal , in Pocatello [ 4-4-1998] By Vern Anderson
    Associated Press. Mormon leadership formed a committee to update curriculum
    using Apostle John Widstoe’s compilation of prophet’s Youngs teachings , Widstoe
    had used the Journal of Discourses as his source . Ronald Knighton, director of the
    Curriculum Department, said that the “brethren ” [ First Presidency ] would advise
    on where to use ellipses etc. as not full quotes from Young would need to be used etc.
    On page 165 of this manual concerning presiding officers it stated , ” Set that example
    before your WIFE and your children…” Yet, in Apostle’s Widtsoe’s book and also in
    the Journal of Discourses, it actually reads , “WIVES” here. Why did Mormon
    leaders resort to this ? Is it dishonest ? Historian Will Bagley, a descendant of
    Mormon polygamists , said, ” I think it really shows a contempt for the intelligence
    of the members.” Mormonism touts their leaders as trustworthy guides in spiritual
    truth, but they need to experience the value in ex-changing their guides for a
    more reliable one— Matt.15:14. There is a Prophet who is reliable, JESUS.

  15. falcon says:

    Polygamy is a perfect example of religion gone haywire. There’s something about certain religious leaders that staying sexually pure is a real challenge. Some of these guys just get real creative as did Smith.
    If we look at the Black Muslim religion, “the honorable Elijah Mohammad” had a couple of young assistants that he took advantage of. That became one of the tipping points for Malcom X in his disillusionment with his chosen religion. Malcom even attempted to justify it initially in his mind based on King David. Sound familiar?
    David Koresh, who led his followers in an incineration finale, had his number one right hand man turn over his wife who Koresh impregnated. True believers can always find some sort of rationalization for sexual sin by their leaders. It keeps the dream alive. Reality is just to hard to face. Once someone knows about these things and continues to excuse the behavior, they are as guilty as the person committing the sin.
    Joseph Smith was very creative as are most cult leaders. They are very persuasive, charming and convincing. There were Mormons who jettisoned Smith and walked away once they found out what he and other leaders were up to. They didn’t buy his feeble explanations. Of course they’re always accused of not being “spiritual” enough or not having enough “faith”.
    What’s really happening is that they refuse to be manipulated and used.

  16. It’s that time again. Time to remind you all that the conversations here at Mormon Coffee should be focusing on the issues, not on one another’s assumed shortcomings. Some recent comments have been caught by the moderation filters and will remain unapproved. Some have (unfortunately) escaped the filters and are online. I have no plans to remove any of these already-posted comments, but ask you all to please take a couple of deep breaths, refocus on the issues, and when you disagree, disagree with one another respectfully. Thanks, friends.

    (I will be posting this comment on a few different threads this week in the hope that everyone will see the reminder.)

  17. falcon says:

    Good reminder Sharon.
    I was reviewing my own give and take with some of the posters a week or so ago and found myself asking if these conversations weren’t creeping down to the level of “YOU SUCK!”, “NO YOU SUCK!”
    I know what happens with people emotionally when they get hooked into these toxic exchanges. It’s the most difficult thing to simply walk away (so to speak) because posters tend to be competitive and they don’t want it to appear that they’ve been “beaten”.
    I was unloading my shopping cart in a Walmart parking lot last week when I heard this woman’s voice shouting the most profane and nasty language you can imagine. I shouldn’t have stared but I was curious to see who she was yelling at because she was referencing someone. Well other than a fourteen year old girl that was with her, I couldn’t see anyone and she wasn’t directing her comments at (the girl). Actually the woman looked like she was auditioning for a new reality show based on encounters in Walmart parking lots. The woman wasn’t poorly dressed or groomed nor was she driving some beater of a car. I’ve found that if you want to know what’s going on in the middle of society look to the fringes because it’s there that things will be amplified. I concluded that there has been a general break-down of decorum in today’s world.
    I’ve kind of made a rule for myself that if it looks like I’m getting “hooked” by a poster, I move on to another thread. I would tell folks if they find that they are thinking about the person too much when they are away from the blog, it’s a warning sign that it’s time to move on.

  18. helenlouissmith says:

    Thanks Sharon, yes a good reminder for ALL posters. I find myself getting caught up with the mundane over the top, cryptic messages, that have more to do with individual labeling and ad hominem attacks then actually substance that would either reveal a truth or a outright misrepresentation. From the very start I have asked for civil conversations that would bring out the Christian goodness in all of us.

    Peace, Helen/Louis 🙂

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