Understanding Polygamy: A Brief History

In 1882, Congress passed the Edmunds Act--legislation that made polygamy a felony. This act was solely in response to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' practice of plural marriage.

However, to make polygamy illegal would have been ineffective because evidence to prove polygamous marriage wasn't easy to obtain. To prosecute fairly would require testimony and evidence only the Church and its members could give, which obviously wasn't going to happen.

So the U.S. government tried to be clever and pass legislation that would make "bigmous" and "unlawful cohabitation" a felony, which would allow for circumstantial evidence to be enough to prove that polygamy had taken place.

Further disregarding the rule of law, the Edmunds Act provided a cover for arresting people who said they believed in plural marriage, but did not practice it themselves. Men were also arrested ex post facto, or for polygamous marriages that were performed before the law was passed in 1882.

Due process was simply ignored as more than 1300 men were arrested, including many prominent leaders in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency of the Church. Included among these is George Q. Cannon (center) who would serve as First Counselor under 4 Church presidents before the end of his life, including when this picture was taken in 1888.

The mentality behind this legislation was that no woman of her own accord would ever participate in polygamy. Female members of the early church needed to be liberated from their husbands and the pressures of the Church to conform, and the opponents were willing to come at the Mormons with everything in their arsenal.

Yes, including cheesy political cartoons.


These pressures and prejudices inspired what, to me, has always been one of the most powerful pieces of Mormon literature ever published.

And, to no one's surprise, it was written by a woman.

Is it Ignorance?

This is the question that Emmeline B. Wells posed in an article published in The Women's Exponent on July 1, 1883. Speaking to the federal legislators and civilian critics, Wells writes:

It seems a very common thing with people unaquainted with the facts to say, it is the ignorance of "Mormon" women "that keeps them in bondage," that "makes them submit to plural marriage," when in truth the very contrary is the case. It is because of the intelligence they possess on subjects connected with their existence here and hereafter, as well as that of their posterity and kindred, the hopes entertained, and the actual knowledge concerning the future that causes them to embrace a doctrine so unpopular and so objectionable in the eyes of the world. Such paragraphs as the following and similar ones abound in the newspapers and journals of the day: "It was hoped by giving the women of Utah the ballot they would use it for the destruction of the monster, which keeps them under its iron heel, in hopeless misery." These people may be well meaning, but they talk nonsense and folly in the extreme...

If anyone supposes these same women citizens to be ignorant of the rights the ballot gives them, then they know very little about the women of this Territory, and our advice to them is, let the matter rest until you have an opportunity of solving the problem by thorough investigation, and not from one side, and remember the words of the Savior, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." (Source: PBS.org)

For someone on a leash and horribly repressed, she sure does seem to know what she's about.

The first time I read Is it Ignorance? I was in high school. I don't remember if I was baptized yet or not, but Wells' testimony of polygamy impressed me. Her conviction was sincere, and her answer was consistent and full of doctrinal substance. Her question was compelling.

Polygamy--even faith itself--was it ignorance?

I had my faith and my witness from the Holy Ghost. In these I had my answer, my certainty. No, it wasn't ignorance. It was God.

But because polygamy was the only thing the people around me knew about the Mormons, it was the subject that was raised the most to me both before and after I became a member. The issue became an irritant, not to my testimony but to my patience, because the matter seemed so entirely irrelevant to the question they were really asking:

Is the Church true, despite polygamy? Or even simpler than that, is the Church true?

I wasn't the sort of person who could look at Joseph Smith and think, Oh my gosh, he was a polygamist and he kept it a secret, the Church must not be true!

Pardon my French, but that's nonsense.

Unless someone out there has a flux capacitor and a Delorian, the future still has no logical impact on the past. The First Vision had already happened and the Restoration was underway by the time polygamy ever became an issue. That Joseph revealed polygamy in 1831 has no logical impact on whether or not the First Vision took place in 1820. Or the restoration of the priesthood in 1829. Or the formal organization of the Church in 1830.

Unless of course the critics saying Joseph wasn't the prophet of the Restoration want to base that claim on something that hadn't even happened yet. In which case I should probably ask, Does God deny you blessings or punish you for sins that you haven't committed yet?

I hope not. That would suck.

Beyond chronology, it made perfect sense to me that Joseph would be commanded to implement polygamy, and then hesitate to widely publicize the practice.

No one need look any further than the Old Testament to see whether polygamy is allowable to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--considering Abraham and Jacob practiced polygamy. Polygamy is as eternal as the gospel itself, seeing as its the gospel that binds it. Its ancient origins are evidence enough of that.

But I can see two simple reasons why Joseph would hesitate to be too public with polygamy. On a personal level, Joseph was well aware that plural marriage would make his enemies want to kill him, not to mention break his wife's heart and cause many of his friends to abandon him. Those prospects are not pleasant to anyone, but especially not to someone who knew the loneliness that Joseph felt from having been mocked and hated from a young age for the destiny God had given him--what he could not deny or escape.

No one who hasn't felt that pain should never discredit it. It is not an easy burden to bear.

What critics must also remember is that Saints past and present, even though we no longer practice polygamy, still view it as a sacred marriage ordinance. We view polygamy with the same respect we view for our standard, monogamous marriage ceremony because we believe both are bound by the same God. To make certain details public would be extremely blasphemous to God and deeply offensive in our eyes. Being too open about polygamy would invite conversations with others about something that is not ours to discuss--something too sacred to profane even with well-intended words.

The Church's reserved approach to polygamy today reflects much of this same caution and reverence.

Is it Choice?

In short, you can look at Joseph Smith and the Church in regards to polygamy (or anything else, for that matter) and see secrecy, or questionable activities of a surreal nature that are too strange to believe. Or you can see a man and an organization that were destined to become much greater than they had the ability to become on their own--requiring transformation and struggle, a deep and abiding reliance on Jesus Christ and obedience to His commandments.

That's the choice. You can make it with God through prayer, with the faith that the Holy Ghost will reveal the answer unto you with clarity you cannot deny. Or you can do what a fair number of members are trying to do right now by trying to find conviction through history. Evidence. "Objectivity."

But expecting history to give you impartial, neutral certainty about anyone or anything is impossible. Relying on a secular approach to history when you're in search of religious conviction, is madness--the equivalent of relying on the understanding of stupid people who have studied the deeds of other stupid people in an attempt to find God.

If there's anything I learned from being a history major, it's that people are stupid. They've been stupid for a very long time. I include myself in this gladly. I'm one of the stupidest people I know, and I can say that with a smile for one reason.

I'm stupid because I'm human. Mortal. Fallible. It means that all of the glorious experiences I've had exist despite me. They have nothing to do with any capability I have. And to my great joy, studying history has revealed something quite amazing to me.

People all over the world are stupid, just like me. And somehow, we all go on living. We live despite our frailties, we endure despite our penchants for things that are self destructive, and we go on experiencing what we can't understand--only to discover there was a design to them all along.

I don't take that as a sign that people somehow manage all of that without God. On the contrary--I think the existence of God is the most self-evident, inescapable reality there is. I don't think our humanity could exist without Him, and in that way it's a gift. Learning relies on that frailty because that frailty allows for change.

So reader. After all this, the choice is yours. What's it going to be?

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