Do Mormons Believe in Polygamy?
A long-standing misconception about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is that the religion openly condones polygamy. However, the history of Mormon polygamy is much more complex than that.
Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and polygamy
Historians and lay-people have not reached an agreement on when polygamy was introduced into the LDS church. There is even a debate whether Joseph Smith, Jr. practiced it; some say he married as many as 30 different women, while Smith’s son claimed that his father opposed polygamy and that Brigham Young introduced it to the church. The evidence supporting Smith’s polygamy was a supposed revelation in 1831; William W. Phelps described it in an 1861 letter to Brigham Young that said, “It is Jesus Christ's will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome, and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.” Brigham Young is known to have had 51 wives and fathered 57 children by 16 of them; in 1852, the church announced and defended the practice at his request.
The termination of polygamy
The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in 1862, made plural marriage a crime in the territories including Utah, but many Mormons refused to give up the practice. In 1879, the Supreme Court upheld the law in their 9-0 ruling in Reynolds v. United States; a Mormon who claimed that the Act violated his First Amendment rights. The ruling stated, "Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinion, they may with practices." The issue of polygamy put a target on the church’s back. Congress passed more laws directed at the church for the practice in 1882 and 1887; the latter act prompted the Attorney General of the U.S. to sue the church to seize it and its assets. Finding it impossible to function as a church under these conditions, church president Wilford Woodruff issued the 1890 Manifesto that disavowed polygamy. This changed the course of the church’s history; it prohibited church members from entering into any type of marriage forbidden by law and made statehood for Utah possible. However, it also prompted a split in the church.
The split over polygamy
In 1904, the church issued a second manifesto that banned new plural marriages anywhere in the world, threatening excommunication for anyone who violated the ban. This prompted many Mormon fundamentalists to leave the mainstream church and found their own sects in the Western U.S., Canada and Mexico. Various sources have reported their current numbers as anywhere from as few as 20,000 to as many as 60,000, and that less than half of those practiced polygamy. Nevertheless, the misconception persists; it even surfaced in the debate over marriage rights for same-sex couples, which the church opposes; critics of the church have brought up Mormon polygamy to accuse them of hypocrisy.
While Mormons used to practice polygamy, the LDS church abandoned it over 100 years ago. Still, many Mormon fundamentalist sects and individuals continue to practice it; the HBO TV series "Big Love" depicted a Mormon fundamentalist family. Regardless of the reality, misconceptions about the church's current position continue to exist.