Discuss this article or ask questions at the LDS.net Forums.
Also see the Mormon Church's official website regarding polygamy: 
Mormons, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do not practice polygamy. The term "Mormon Polygamy" is incorrect, as anyone who follows this practice in our day is not a member of the Church but belongs instead to some fundamentalist or other religious denomination. Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th Prophet and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stated the following about polygamy in the Church's General Conference of October 1998:
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.
Polygamy, usually called plurality of wives, or the "Principle," by Mormons, was once commanded of the Lord for a very specific purpose at a critical time in history, and the law was divinely repealed in 1890. The term polygamy is actually a widely used misnomer, as Church members actually practiced polygyny, a type of marital relationship where one man marries multiple women. This practice led to severe persecution and repression of Mormons by the United States Government in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and the abandonment of Mormon polygamy became a condition for Utah statehood. Many misunderstandings, misconceptions, half-truths, and outright lies have attended discussions of Mormon polygamy among the Mormons and are still fostered among anti-Mormons and ex-Mormons who attempt to attack the Church and its teachings. This article will address the history of polygamy among Mormons and the official teachings of the Mormon Church about polygamy.
Marriage as the Lord Decrees
Since the beginning of recorded history, God has sometimes commanded His people to practice polygamy, and sometimes forbid it, but when He does command it, the purpose is to raise righteous children unto the Lord. This corresponds precisely to what Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught:
- [...] I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, page 324.)
- God never introduced the Patriarchal order of marriage with a view to please man in his carnal desires, nor to punish females for anything which they had done; but He introduced it for the express purpose of raising up to His name a royal Priesthood, a peculiar people. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 3:264)
- This revelation, which God gave to Joseph, was for the express purpose of providing a channel for the organization of tabernacles [i.e. bodies], for those spirits to occupy who have been reserved to come forth in the kingdom of God, and that they might not be obliged to take tabernacles out of the kingdom of God. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 3:265)
Joseph Smith and Polygamy
- see also the Mormon history article covering this time period.
In 1831, one year after the founding of the Church, as Joseph Smith was working on a translation of the Bible, he appealed to the Lord about some questions raised as he read the scriptures. According to the revelation given to Joseph Smith, but not written down until July 12, 1843, Joseph Smith approached the Lord and asked Him why he permitted ancient prophets like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to have multiple wives. The revelation states that only God can command men to practice polygamy and that he appoints a prophet to be in charge of it when he does.
Joseph Smith was hesitant to teach this new principle and did not even share it with his closest associates for many years. According to later statements by Lorenzo Snow, and Brigham Young, Joseph was himself repelled by the idea, and not until an angel of Lord appeared to him and ordered him to practice it and teach it, did he begin. This apparently took place sometime after 1839, when the Mormons had been driven to Nauvoo, Illinois. When Brigham Young learned about it he said:
- Some of these my brethren know what my feelings were at the time Joseph revealed the doctrine; I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin, knowing the toil and labor that my body would have to undergo; and I have had to examine myself, from that day to this, and watch my faith, and carefully meditate, lest I should be found desiring the grave more than I ought to do (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 3:266).
It is not clear exactly how many women Joseph Smith married, but it is apparent that Joseph Smith did not ever live with any of these other wives. Mormon teachings on marriage, which Joseph Smith had begun teaching in Nauvoo, taught that men and women could be married for all eternity, not just in this life. Marriage was for "time and all eternity." Time referred to this mortal life while eternity referred to the next life. Hence, according to Joseph Smith marriages could be just for this life, for this life and the next, or just for the next life.
This last category has caused much confusion and led to many attacks on the characters of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. For persons whose spouses were not Mormons and thus could not be married for “time and all eternity” to that spouse, early Mormon practice allowed the person to be sealed, a Mormon word referring to temple marriage for all eternity, to one person, but married for time to another. Thus, the person would continue to live with one spouse in this life, but have the blessings of eternal marriage, called celestial marriage, with another. Many of Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s wives were of this sort. They never lived with these wives or had sexual relations with them.
Women tend to be more intuitive than men, so most religions or spiritual movements have won more female adherents than male. Likewise, in the early days of the Church, there were more female converts than male. Mormon polygamy enabled these women to have financial support, as those leaders able to support more than one wife stepped up and accepted that burden.
The Nauvoo Period
In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith began teaching Mormon polygamy to his closest and most trusted associates. Nearly 100 people were taught about it before Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. A few began this practice before the exodus of 1846, but it remained in hiatus until the Mormons were established in Utah.
During this time, some close associates took advantage of this situation. John C. Bennett, a friend of Joseph Smith and mayor of Nauvoo, perverted these teachings to gratify his own lust. He told single and married women that Joseph was teaching "spiritual wifery," as he called it, which he claimed gave them permission to sleep with whomever they desired. Bennett was eventually caught. He confessed that Joseph Smith had never taught "spiritual wifery," which amounted to adultery, and was soon excommunicated. He left Nauvoo and began publishing scathing attacks on Joseph Smith. Another close associate, William Law, pleaded with Joseph Smith to renounce polygamy. When he would not, Law and a few other disaffected Mormons published the Nauvoo Expositor which claimed Joseph Smith was teaching adultery and fornication and called for him to be hung. The Nauvoo City Council decided this was a public nuisance and so destroyed the press. Riots followed and Joseph Smith was arrested, imprisoned in Carthage Jail, and there murdered on June 27, 1844.
Polygamy in Utah
- see also the articles on Mormon history covering this period.
Mormon Polygamy Publicly Announced1846. Once established in Utah, Brigham Young directed Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to announce the practice publicly. He did so on August 29, 1852. In this speech and others that followed, he set forth the Church’s explanation and defense of polygamy. He claimed first that God had commanded it. Secondly, the reason God commanded it was so that Mormons could raise righteous children. Lastly he noted that God only permitted His prophets to direct who will practice polygamy. As evidence, he cited the story of the Prophet Nathan and King David, where Nathan explains that he gave David his wives from a commandment of God (See 2 Samuel 12:1-9).
The practice continued in Utah until 1890, when a revelation came from the Lord forbidding further polygamous marriages. At first, being isolated in Utah, the Mormon Church practiced it openly and without harassment. In the 1850s the newly formed Republican Party made part of its platform the abolishment of polygamy. Distracted by the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, little happened at first, though the issue of polygamy was part of the justification for the Utah War. President Buchanan sent 5,000 troops to crush a non-existent rebellion in the territory in 1857.
Anti-Polygamy Legislation and Raids
Beginning in 1862, the U.S. Congress passed a series of increasingly stringent laws outlawing Mormon polygamy. The first, the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, passed on July 1, 1862, outlawed polygamy. Bigamy was difficult to prove, as records were scanty, and while some Mormon leaders including Brigham Young were arrested, they were generally released. George Reynolds, Young’s secretary and a British immigrant, was arrested and tried. He appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court arguing that polygamy was protected by the U.S. Bill of Rights, which guaranteed free exercise of religion. In ruling on Reynolds v. United States, the Court said that this clause protected beliefs only and that Congress could pass laws preventing practices “which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order” (98 U.S. 164). Reynolds was sentenced to five years of jail time.
Sir Richard Burton, the famous explorer and orientalist, actually defended both the Mormons and their practice of polygamy in his book, The City of the Saints and across the Rocky Mountains to California. He said:
- Those individuals who have the strength of mind sufficient to divest themselves entirely from the influence of custom, and examine the doctrine of a plurality of wives under the light of reason and revelation, will be forced to the conclusion that it is a doctrine of divine origin; that it was embraced and practiced under the divine sanction by the most righteous men who ever lived on the earth: holy prophets and patriarchs, who were inspired by the Holy Ghost (p 382).
Burton also defended the Mormons against their legal persecutors. He argued that the Constitution of the United States should protect this practice:
- The Constitution and laws of the United States, being founded upon the principles of freedom, do not interfere with marriage relations, but leave the nation free to believe in and practice the doctrine of a plurality of wives, or to confine themselves to the one-wife system, just as the choose. This is as it should be (p 379).
The True Nature of Polygamy in Utah
The raids and attacks of the 1880s make it appear that all Mormons were living in polygamy. Though records are not always clear, their clarity deliberately obscured to prevent government officers from easily finding polygamists, it is clear that only a minority ever practiced polygamy. Estimates are that at maximum 20 to 25 percent of the Church at any given time was practicing it; some estimates place it as low as 5 percent. Approximately one third of women in the 1880s lived in polygamous families. The 1,300 men arrested is certainly a small percentage of the nearly 150,000 Mormons at the time and that number approached 200,000 by 1890. Some people, anti-Mormons and even some Mormons, have tried to claim that Mormon prophets of the nineteenth century said that every man must practice polygamy to get into heaven, but this is a distortion of the truth. In 1866, John Taylor, who succeeded Brigham Young as President of the Church said:
- When this system was first introduced among this people, it was one of the greatest crosses that ever was taken up by any set of men since the world stood. Joseph Smith told others; he told me, and I can bear witness of it, "that if this principle was not introduced, this Church and kingdom could not proceed." When this commandment was given, it was so far religious, and so far binding upon the Elders of this Church, that it was told them if they were not prepared to enter into it, and to stem the torrent of opposition that would come in consequence of it, the keys of the kingdom would be taken from them. When I see any of our people, men or women, opposing a principle of this kind, I have years ago set them down as on the high road to apostasy, and I do to-day; I consider them apostates, and not interested in this Church and kingdom (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 11:221).
Here he clearly says that it is the principle that must be accepted, just as men are expected to accept every principle and revelation from God. He says men must be ‘prepared’ to enter into it and defend it, even though they may not be required to do so. If one considers that when he said that the majority of those listening were not practicing polygamy and were never asked to do so, it becomes clear that they understood this to mean that they must accept the principle as a revelation from God in order to enter heaven, since Jesus taught that man must live on “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4).
For Mormons who practiced polygamy, it brought both blessings and trials to be overcome. Mormon women were generally in favor of polygamy, feeling not only that it came from God, but also that it liberated them to do much more with their time. Many Mormon women, with other wives to share the work, went to school and became very accomplished. Anti-Mormon leaders in Utah gave women the right to vote in 1870 hoping that these supposedly oppressed women would vote for anti-Mormon candidates, but the measure backfired. Mormon women under polygamy had much more freedom to pursue vocations and education. Three of Brigham Young’s wives studied medicine and helped found a hospital.
Joseph Fielding Smith, who was a Mormon Apostle and later President of the Church grew up in a polygamous family. Of this situation he said: "[My father Joseph F. Smith] had five wives and 43 children. No father ever at any age of the world, we feel confident in saying, had a greater love for wife or wives and children, and was more earnestly concerned for their welfare than was [my father]" (Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith, p. 449). He says further of the wives and children in this family:
- [T]here was and is no monogamist family which could be more united. To the astonishment of the unbelieving world, the wives loved each other dearly. In times of sickness they tenderly waited upon and nursed each other. When death invaded one of the homes and a child was taken, all wept and mourned together with sincere grief which was wonderful to see. Two of the wives were skilled and licensed practitioners in obstetrics, and brought many babies into the world. They waited upon each other and upon the other wives, and when babies came all rejoiced equally with the mother.
- The children recognized each other as brothers and sisters, full-fledged, not as half, as they would be considered in the world. They defended each and stood by each other no matter which branch of the family was theirs (Life of Joseph F. Smith, p. 449).
Smith concludes that the reasons the outside world viewed polygamy with such horror and disgust was that they "judged the 'Mormon' people by their own corrupt standards that they failed to understand the true condition which prevailed in 'Mormon' homes" (Life of Joseph F. Smith, p. 449).
In 1887, the Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act which disincorporated the Church and seized virtually all of its property, except the temples and some church buildings. The Church appealed this ruling, again citing the freedom of religion, but in 1890 in The Late Corporation of the Mormon Church v. United States the Supreme Court again upheld the ban on polygamy.
Facing the utter destruction of the Church, Wilford Woodruff, the forth president of the Church met and prayed with the other apostles. After much prayer, President Woodruff saw a vision of what would happen if the Church continued to practice polygamy. He saw the destruction of the Church, the scattering of the Mormons, and the cessation of all their work. The Lord had previously shown that sometimes he commands men to practice polygamy and sometimes he forbids it, depending upon the circumstance. Wilford Woodruff then realized that the time had come to stop practicing polygamy. He issued what has become known as the Manifesto. It said that the Mormon Church would no longer contract marriages forbidden by law. President Grover Cleveland would later pardon all those who entered polygamous marriages before 1890. Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona were required to ban polygamy in their constitutions. Idaho's laws originally kept all polygamists from holding office, and for a time Idaho banned all persons married in Mormon temples from voting or holding office.
Anti-Mormons try to claim that Wilford Woodruff caved under pressure, but according to Gordon B. Hinckley, former President of the Mormon Church, the role of the Prophet is to find answers to the problems of God’s people by asking God in prayer. President Woodruff sought help from God and God gave it. Wilford Woodruff himself in speaking about this revelation said:
- I have had some revelations of late, and very important ones to me, and I will tell you what the Lord has said to me. Let me bring your minds to what is termed the manifesto...
- The Lord has told me to ask the Latter-day Saints a question, and He also told me that if they would listen to what I said to them and answer the question put to them, by the Spirit and power of God, they would all answer alike, and they would all believe alike with regard to this matter.
- The question is this: Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue—to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead?
- The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for...any of the men in this temple at Logan; for all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice. Now, the question is, whether it should be stopped in this manner, or in the way the Lord has manifested to us, and leave our Prophets and Apostles and fathers free men, and the temples in the hands of the people, so that the dead may be redeemed. A large number has already been delivered from the prison house in the spirit world by this people, and shall the work go on or stop? This is the question I lay before the Latter-day Saints. You have to judge for yourselves. I want you to answer it for yourselves. I shall not answer it; but I say to you that that is exactly the condition we as a people would have been in had we not taken the course we have.
- ...I saw exactly what would come to pass if there was not something done. I have had this spirit upon me for a long time. But I want to say this: I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do; and when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write... (Doctrine and Covenants, excerpts attached to Official Declaration 1).
Since the Manifesto
Groups today that practice polygamy, and call themselves "Fundamentalist Mormons," are not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of their members have never been members of the Mormon church and their actions are considered illegal. These groups often withdraw into isolated communities and seldom gain new converts. This leads to intermarrying of close relatives and has caused heightened birth defects among these groups. These groups often require all men to enter polygamy, which causes many problems and has led to an excess of single men unable to marry. These men are often expelled from the group and cut off from their families. Other abuses often occur in these isolated communities such as forced marriages, which did not occur among nineteenth-century Mormons. Polygamy as practiced by these groups is very different from the historical practice of polygamy by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which never required all men to practice polygamy and never withdrew into secretive communes cut off from the rest of the world. The Mormon Church in the nineteenth century never forced young girls into marriage or expelled those who would not enter into polygamous marriages. Women also historically had access to divorce, and could freely leave marriages that dissatisfied them. The practices of contemporary polygamous sects should never be confused with nineteenth century Mormon practice.
One polygamist sect has been in the news repeatedly, because its supposed prophet, Warren Jeffs, was arrested for arranging a forced marriage of an underage girl. His sect is called The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and they call themselves "Mormon." Jeffs was convicted of accessory to rape. During his incarceration, he claimed not to be a prophet.  On November 20, 2007, he was sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years to life and began serving his sentence at the Utah State Prison. Jeffs' conviction was reversed by Utah's Supreme Court on July 27, 2010 because of incorrect jury instructions. He has since been extradited to Texas, where he will face charges of bigamy and sexual assault in connection with a raid on a West Texas ranch in 2008.  In 2011, in absentium Jeffs banished a number of men from their marriages and from the Colorado compound, and rumors of rebellion hit the news. In the past, unscrupulous means have been employed to gain control of these apostate groups, with contention between powerful men for control.
In contrast is the true kingdom of God on earth, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with a membership of 14,000,000, is the most loving organization in the world. There is no lobbying or contending for leadership of the Mormon Church, and no elections, either. Leaders are chosen through revelation from God. Members of the Church are neither reclusive nor secretive. They are good citizens in whatever area they reside, and shine for their talent, education, and participation in society.
- The Mormon Church's official website regarding polygamy
- Other relevant sites:  
- A series of videotaped interviews with Texans to show how the Mormon Church differs from polygamist groups
- Video:Mike Otterson, Church Public Affairs on Texas sect
- Video:Mike Otterson:Polygamist sect has nothing to do with the Mormon Church
- Steve Young and Sharlene Hawkes address misconceptions about polygamy and the Church
- LDS Newsroom:Mormons and Polygamy
- Answers to challenging questions about the Mormon Church