On a consistent basis here at Mormon Women: Who We Are, we see that people are asking questions about Mormons and polygamy. The questions come in different ways: “Can Mormons have many wives?” “Do Mormons practice polygamy?” “What do Mormons think about polygamy?”
Television programs like “Big Love” or the newly-released reality show “Sister Wives” (as well as news stories on small polygamous groups that appear in the news on occasion) have likely contributed to the fact that this question remains on some people’s minds.
And because of the way some polygamous groups live (in compounds, separated from modern society, dressing in 19th-century attire, etc.), we also get questions such as: “Do all Mormon women have long hair?” “What do Mormon women wear?”
We wanted to share a few simple answers to the above questions in the hope that there would be less confusion about these issues.
The Church’s official site (lds.org) says the following under the index entry for “polygamy”:
“The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. At certain times and for His specific purposes, God, through His prophets, has directed the practice of plural marriage (sometimes called polygamy), which means one man having more than one living wife at the same time. In obedience to direction from God, Latter-day Saints followed this practice for about 50 years during the 1800s.” The Church officially stopped sanctioning the practice of plural marriage in 1890. (You can find more about the history of polygamy at the above index link.)
Polygamy was a test of faith. It was not easy for either men and women who were asked to live this commandment. Nevertheless, those affected by this commandment sought personal inspiration about whether to accept it, and where applicable, live it.
If you were to ask different LDS Church members today what they think of polygamy, you’d probably get a range of answers. Some have struggled with the fact that plural marriage is a part of Mormon history. Others accept is as a part of our history. Some will give their personal ideas for why it existed, with opinions differing, even among historians. (Links above to lds.org and mormon.org’s FAQ explain some possible reasons.) Some people are personally descended from early LDS polygamists; their answers may have yet another slightly different flavor to them. (Read one such perspective in “Ask a Mormon Woman: “What do you think about polygamy?”)
Where discomfort does exist, it’s understandable to the degree that such discomfort acknowledges that monogamy is the rule in God’s commandments. “The Lord’s law of marriage is monogamy unless he commands otherwise….” (see Encyclopedia of Mormonism Vol. 3, pp. 1091-1095, quoted in another official Church answer in the FAQ on polygamy at mormon.org). President Gordon B. Hinckley stated, polygamy is “against the law of God.” This is true “[e]ven in countries where civil or religious law allows [the practice of a man having more than one wife] (“What Are People Asking about Us?” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 72). Any marriage must be monogamous in order for individuals to qualify for Church membership.
But we would hope that any such discomfort not be allowed to cloud the broader perspective and understanding about who we are, what we believe, and how we live as Mormons. Our faith as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints centers on the Savior and His role in God’s plan of happiness for His children. We try to follow the Savior and incorporate and live His teachings. We value marriage between a man and a woman as a critical part of that plan.
You likely cross paths with Mormons in your day-to-day life in your communities, places of employment, grocery stores, schools, and other places. We wear modest but very typical attire for the countries and cultures in which we live. Our hairstyles vary widely (short, long, curly, straight…). Our life circumstances vary as well.
And let us be clear that the only time you might see us in old-fashioned dresses is when we are re-enacting moments from early Church history. 🙂
A final note: When we study or celebrate our history, we usually don’t talk much about polygamy, because in reality, polygamy is not what defines (or at least shouldn’t define) what our history is all about. We study our history to understand more about how a deep faith in the Savior can help us face our trials and tests, and can fill our lives with joy as we seek to serve the Lord and those around us.