2006/7 was the year of polygamy for Mormonism. Warren Jeffs, the charismatic leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), was finally captured on Monday 28 August 2006 in Las Vegas with his brother and one of his many wives. Jeffs had been on the run since May 2004 after being charged with sexual misconduct for allegedly arranging marriages between minors and older men. The 10,000 strong FLDS Church is more than a hundred years old and broke away from the Salt Lake Mormon Church when the latter gave up the practice of polygamy officially in 1890. Jeffs is said to have as many as 70 wives, although no one seems really sure of the number. He would claim that his church is being true to “the principle” of polygamy as taught and practised by early Mormon leaders from Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder through to Heber J Grant, Mormonism’s seventh president.

This has spawned a lot of interest in this dark side of Mormonism’s history and teaching. The best account perhaps has been a DVD produced by Living Hope Ministries, “Lifting the Veil on Polygamy”. The problem for the Mormon Church is that Jeffs, in becoming a fugitive from justice with a bounty on his head for practising polygamy is simply emulating early Mormon leaders. The first seven presidents of the church practised polygamy. John Taylor, Mormonism’s third president, died in hiding and Wilford Woodruff, his successor, served time for being polygamists. It is no wonder that there have been calls from help groups for the church to come clean, own its past, and offer an unqualified condemnation of the practice. Instead they condemn polygamists and distance themselves from “Mormon fundamentalists” but refuse to say anything that might criticise, let alone compromise their founding prophet and his followers.

Typically, leaders make statements such as this from Mormon president Gordon B Hinckley:

“People mistakenly assume that this church has something to do with it (polygamy). It has nothing whatever to do with it. It has had nothing to do with it for a very long time. It’s outside the realm of our responsibility. These people are not members. Any man or woman who becomes involved in it is excommunicated from the church. (Larry King Live, Sept. 8 1998)

The truth is that it has everything to do with the Mormon Church and Hinckley is being disingenuous, conveniently overlooking the fact that early Mormon leaders, from Joseph Smith in the 1830s through to early twentieth century leaders, routinely broke the law to practice polygamy and lied to hide it. Hinckley’s public response also fails to address the fact that official Mormon Scripture describes polygamy as an eternal principle (D&C 132.)” [See Reachout Trust]


It is well known that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. The pedantic often insist on ‘polygyny’. ‘Polygamy’ means having more than one marriage partner at a time, while polygyny is gender specific and means having more than one wife at a time. Leaving aside such ‘nice’ distinctions, Joseph Smith not only married many women (polygamy) but many of those women were already married to other men (polyandry). The Mormon Church, when it does address this issue, offers explanations that we will look at momentarily.

Before we do we should let the facts seize people’s minds. Joseph “married” a lot of women. Figures presented have been between 20 and 60, the middle ground being most popular. A full third of Joseph’s “marriages” were polyandrous and experts put this figure at 11. We know for a fact that nine of his first twelve wives were married to other men. The non-Mormon readers must simply look at these facts and ask themselves how they feel about it all. Even some Christian leaders these days are being taken in by the Mormon charm offensive that presents the faith as a law-abiding, family friendly church.

Mormons might ask themselves the same question. Never mind that this is Joseph Smith; never mind the party line; never mind what your bishop will ask you in your next temple recommend interview about supporting and sustaining the church. Ask yourself, “what do I think of this and what do I imagine the world might think?” Because we read time and again that there is nothing new in these claims that it has all been heard before, and that Mormons are simply not impressed.

The problem does not lie in the lack of originality in the criticisms but in the unshockability of the typical Mormon! What we have here is the inuring of the Mormon mind to the facts of Joseph’s history. What is more disturbing is the defence put up for what most would otherwise see as base and contemptible behaviour. Of course, when the Mormon Church defends its early leaders in their conduct they effectively lend weight to the Mormon fundamentalist cause that they so glibly dismiss as not their concern.

Binding and Loosing

“[Joseph] believed he had been given powers that transcended civil law. Claiming sole responsibility for binding and unbinding marriages on earth and in heaven, he did not consider it necessary to obtain civil marriage licenses or divorce decrees. Whenever he deemed it appropriate he could release a woman from her earthly marriage and seal her to himself or to another with no stigma of adultery.” – Richard Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, p.42.

Thus his conduct was, “not adultery because a man could not commit adultery with wives who belonged to him.” (Daynes, More Wives than One, p.202)

Joseph “believed he had been given powers that transcended civil law.” In other words, Joseph considered himself above the law. This is an interesting assertion in light of the Mormon twelfth Article of Faith. “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honouring (sic), and sustaining the law.”

Of course, the argument is made that there is a higher law and that anyone should obey God rather than man. However, such a gross abuse of a gospel imperative is inexcusable. When that dictum was coined (Acts 4:18-20) it was in response to a warning not to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. To excuse the taking of other men’s wives by appealing to a higher authority is perverse.

Mormon Apostle Jedediah M Grant had this to say on the subject:

“When Joseph Smith was alive, his declaration to me was as the voice of Almighty God. Why? Because he had the Priesthood of God on the earth… When the family organization was revealed from heaven – the patriarchal order of God, and Joseph began, on the right and on the left, to add to his family, what a quaking there was in Israel. Says one brother to another, ‘Joseph says all covenants are done away, and none are binding but the new covenants; now suppose Joseph should come and say he wanted your wife, what would you say to that?’ ‘I would tell him to go to hell.’ This was the spirit of many in the early days of this chur

“If Joseph had a right to dictate me in relation to salvation, in relation to the hereafter, he had a right to dictate me in relation to all my earthly affairs, in relation to the treasures of the earth, and in relation to the earth itself. He had a right to dictate in relation to the cities of the earth, to the natives of the earth, and in relation to everything on Land and on sea. That is what he had a right to do, if he had any right at all. If he did not have that right, he did not have the priesthood of God, he did not have the endless priesthood that emanates from the eternal being. A priesthood that is clipped, and lacks length, is not the priesthood of God; if it lacks depth, it is not the priesthood of God; for the priesthood in ancient times extended over the wide world, and coped with the universe, and had a right to govern and control the inhabitants thereof, to regulate them, give them laws, and execute those laws. The power looked like the priesthood of God. This same priesthood has been given to Joseph Smith and has been handed down to his successors.” – Journal of Discourses, vol.2, p.13.

Simple Christian Charity?

Now the impression is given, and it is widely understood among Mormons today, that both polygamy and polyandry served the purpose of allowing women who might otherwise not marry, or marry eternally, to enter into an eternal covenant so they may enter God’s highest kingdom. Mormon historian Glen M Leonard wrote:

“This ordinance ensured the woman a marriage that would be valid in the resurrection no matter what became of her temporary, civil agreement. For some, it may have seemed the only way to gain that sacred promise.” – Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2002, p.349.

The perception amongst Mormons who care to think about these things at all is that women outnumbered men in the territory and that polygamy was God’s solution. However, censuses taken at the time show that this situation never existed. It has also been claimed that Joseph’s taking the wives of other men fell into the category of an “Abrahamic test”. That just as Abraham was told to sacrifice his son as a test so these men were asked to give up their wives as a test of their faith.

But if this is the case why would Joseph, in Jedediah Grant’s example, want to marry wives of men who were otherwise brothers in the church? In this example he is not marrying wives of apostates, or non-Mormons. Why, if these men are Mormons, shouldn’t their wives marry their husbands for eternity? Why would Joseph declare all previous covenants done away with? Jedediah Grant also said:

“What would a man say, who felt aright, when Joseph asked him for his money? He would say, ‘Yes, and I wish I had more to help to build up the kingdom of God.’ Or if he came and said, ‘I want your wife?’ ‘O yes,’he would say, ‘here she is, there are plenty more.'” – Jedediah Grant, Journal of Discourses, vol.2 p.14.

Here is a situation where a man is so faithful to the prophet as to be willing to give him his wife. Why doesn’t the wife marry this worthy priesthood holder for eternity? What does Joseph want with the wife of another worthy servant of God? He can’t be helping fulfil an otherwise unattainable covenant promise. The husband is available! But maybe the husband is otherwise unworthy. Perhaps the husband broke the Word of Wisdom, maybe he smoked; but Joseph smoked. Maybe the husband drank alcohol; but Joseph drank alcohol. Maybe the husband wasn’t faithful – don’t even go there. Grant clearly felt that Joseph had the right to dictate and govern as he pleased, and it seems clear that he did.

Much is made of the holy and religious nature of these things, Mormons claiming that “Plural marriage was about revelation and obedience, not lust”. Consider, however, the attitude in which these “servants of God” approached the issue:

“Supposing that I have a wife or a dozen of them, and she should say, ‘You cannot be exalted without me,’ and suppose they all should say so what of that? Suppose that I lose the whole of them before I go into the spirit world, but that I have been a good, faithful, man…do you think I will be destitute there. No, the Lord says there are more there than there are here…there are millions of them…we will got to brother Joseph and say, ‘Here we are brother Joseph; we are here ourselves are we not., with none of the property we possessed in our probationary state, not even the rings on our fingers?’ He will say to us, ‘Come along, my boys, we will give you a good suit of clothes. Where are your wives?’ ‘They are back yonder; they would not follow us.’ ‘Never mind,” says Joseph, ‘Here are thousands, have all you want.'” – Journal of Discourses, vol.4, p.209.

It sounds positively pious, doesn’t it? Liberating for women and humbling for men. It also sounds more like the heaven of Islam than that of Christianity. It sounds like the Mormonism of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS rather than the Mormonism of Gordon B Hinckley.

So here we have a situation where Joseph is approaching worthy priesthood holders, at least in some cases, and asking them for their wives – and getting what he asks for. He is not providing an otherwise unavailable eternal covenant since their husbands would do as well. He is asking them to enter, with him, into an eternal marriage whose main aim is to raise posterity for eternity and we are meant to believe that these relationships are largely platonic, simply to fulfil the eternal covenant of marriage.

It has been argued that some of these women, because of age and other considerations, were a convincing argument for the discipline of celibacy. But remember that, as far as Mormons are concerned, marriage, as well as all its attendant duties and benefits, is for eternity. So what is the difference between saying, “brother, I want to have sex with your wife tomorrow,” and “brother, I want to have sex with your wife after this life, when God has blessed her with a more pleasing aspect”?


When FLDS Mormons practice polygamy they are doing what their official Mormon forebears have done and practising what these leaders deemed an eternal principle.

When FLDS Mormons defy and break the law to practice polygamy they are doing what their official Mormon forebears did, from Joseph Smith to Heber J Grant.

When FLDS Mormon leaders go on the run from the law they are doing what their official Mormon forebears did and when they lie to authorities to protect themselves and their own they are following the examples of early Mormon leaders.

This does not make them right in what they do or excuse their lifestyle. It does explain the true root of that lifestyle, from taking plural wives, through lying about what they do and breaking the law in doing it. It’s a Mormon thing make no mistake and the Mormon Church has yet to take responsibility for what it has practised and modelled to its followers, and what it yet expects to practise in eternity.

The modern Mormon knows little or nothing of these things and would, no doubt, be as shocked as anyone to think of them. However, polygamy is a living issue across the United States among fundamentalist groups with up to 100,000 people practising it and suffering u
nder its rule. The root of it is Mormonism’s founding Prophet Joseph Smith, his followers and successors. As Warren Jeffs goes to trial we should remember that this is Mormonism on trial and we should remind the Mormon Church of its responsibility for 21st century Mormon fundamentalism.

Recommended Reading:

Mormonism 101, McKeever and Johnson

No Man Knows my History, Fawn M Brodie

Mormonism, Shadow or Reality, Jerald and Sandra Tanner

This article appeared originally in the Autumn 2007 Reachout Quarterly