Today, over a century removed from Joseph F. Smith’s 1904 Second Manifesto, what does polygamy mean for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today? The Gospel Topics Essays published on the official Church website suggest that the lasting effects of plural marriage were “the birth of large numbers of children within faithful Latter-day Saint homes,” the availability of marriage to “virtually all who desired it,” equalized wealth per capita, “ethnic intermarriages,” and aid in uniting “a diverse immigrant population.”1
Polygamy provided a sense of group solidarity as Latter-day Saints saw themselves as separate from other religious sects, a “peculiar people” (1 Pet. 2:9). Indeed, in its purpose to “raise up seed unto [the Lord],” polygamy was remarkably effective (Jacob 2:30). Research suggests that 20 percent of living Church members descend from those who practiced polygamy.2
When plural marriage was discontinued, polygamists, too, reflected on its purpose and many believed it had been fulfilled. Said one plural wife, “Polygamy has served its day. We helped to populate Utah and to make it possible for every woman to become a mother. . . . We have served our purpose and polygamy has gone.”3
Present-day Church teachings have made clear that the “standard of the Lord’s people is monogamy” between one man and one woman, and the approximate fifty-year period during which Church members practiced polygamy was a rare exception to that standard.4 Today, Church members no longer practice polygamy, even in countries where polygamy is legal.
Many modern Latter-day Saints still question the principle of plural marriage and wonder why it was practiced. Some have feared that they, too, will be required to live polygamously in this life or in the next. It is natural to wonder how our polygamous past and the teachings of past leaders will affect our future.
Messages from Church Leaders Today
It is essential to remember that the words of modern prophets outweigh those of past prophets.5 The following are messages about plural marriage from Church leaders today:
Apostle Quentin L. Cook, reflecting on nineteenth-century polygamy, shared that “plural marriage, as it was practiced, served its purpose. We should honor those Saints, but that purpose has been accomplished.” Elder Cook acknowledged that “there are unanswered questions. But I want you to know that we have a loving Heavenly Father who has a perfect plan, that His plan is one of happiness, and that we have a Savior who did everything for us. We can trust in Them.”6
In 2015, Elder Marcus B. Nash clarified that some members “inaccurately read” portions of Doctrine and Covenants 132, “leading them to believe that plural marriage is a necessary prerequisite for exaltation in the eternal realm. This, however, is not supported in the revelations.” He further stated, “By setting forth the law of eternal marriage in the context of a monogamous marriage, the Lord makes plain that the blessings of exaltation, extended to each man and each woman who worthily enters into the covenant of eternal marriage performed by proper priesthood authority, are independent of whether that marriage is plural or monogamous [see D&C 131; 132:4–7, 15–25].”7
The Place of Polygamy in Eternity
President Dallin H. Oaks has noted that we have little scriptural information about the “conditions and relationships” in the kingdoms of glory in the afterlife, and this applies directly to questions about plural marriage in the hereafter.8 The Church readily admits that “the precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come.”9
Unfortunately, unknowns have too often been answered with speculation and myths, creating undue fear and angst within some Saints. Among the details we do know about the afterlife are that the work of salvation continues there; ordinances performed on earth have effect in the spirit world; the sealing power can bind, as well as loosen, relationships; and agency, or freedom of choice, is an eternal principle.
Although Latter-day Saints no longer perform living polygamous marriages, the Church has never renounced the doctrine of plural marriage. The revelation on eternal and plural marriage is still canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 132, and eternal sealings, be they nineteenth-century plural marriages or monogamous marriages, are still considered binding in the next world. Remnants of the practice still exist in Latter-day Saint temples as men who have been sealed to a wife now deceased are able to be sealed to another, living woman, granting them more than one wife eternally. A living woman, on the other hand, is not allowed to be eternally sealed to more than one man, even if her husband is deceased. In 1998, the Church introduced a policy that after a woman’s death, she could be sealed to more than one man by proxy—a reflection of the attitude that unknowns will be sorted out in the hereafter.10
Unanswered questions about polygamy in the afterlife are painful for some Church members and no doubt reflect similar tensions that nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints wrestled with. How did they answer those questions with faith? Ultimately, nineteenth-century Saints received answers individually, based on their unique circumstances. Not all chose to live polygamously, nor were they required to do so.
Polygamy forces us to examine ourselves and our belief in the nature of God. Is He a God of justice and mercy? Does He desire our eternal happiness as daughters and sons, to exalt and bless equally and liberally? Eliza R. Snow affirmed in 1869 that “there is not a wish or desire that the Lord has implanted in our hearts in righteousness but will be realized.”11 As scripture and modern Church leaders confirm, heartfelt desires for oneness with a single companion will be honored and, when bound worthily by the eternal marriage covenant, honored with exaltation.
For those faithful Saints who chose plural marriages in the nineteenth century, it is my belief that the righteous yearnings of their hearts will also be realized. “Every tear” they may have shed as a result of their obedience to this principle “will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude.”12 There is no sorrow in our Heavenly Parents’ great plan of happiness.
God’s View of the Family
What can our polygamous past teach us about our Heavenly Parents’ view of the family? Perhaps it is both akin to and more expansive than our own. Carole M. Stephens, First Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency (2012–17), stated, “Earthly families all look different,” but, “we each belong to and are needed in the family of God.” We are “sealed to Him as part of His eternal family,” and His plan “is a plan to unite His children—His family—with Him.”13 The sealing ordinance binds not only a husband, wife, and their children to each other but also unites them with God. Our divine destiny is to gather around our Heavenly Parents again as exalted beings, united together as one family, for this is His work and His glory (Moses 1:39).
The Legacy of Plural Marriage
In 1909, Sarah Comstock, a writer for Collier’s Magazine, visited St. George, Utah. Not a Latter-day Saint herself, Sarah talked with many aged residents who had settled that area, many of whom were polygamists. She listened to their stories and summarized her observations of plural marriage, concluding that even with the variety of attitudes toward plural marriage, “the belief among all the old-school Latter-Day Saints and many of the younger ones [is] that it is right; and that unswerving belief has made polygamy possible. … Now that they have been through their ordeal, they are passing into an old age made content by faith in the glory soon to be theirs.”14
When I first began my journey studying polygamy, I was angry by what I saw as injustice that God required such a difficult principle to be lived by these faithful, tried people. But as I studied the personal writings, stories, and testimonies of polygamists, accepting them on their own terms, I found peace. To me, Sarah Comstock’s observation summarizes what made polygamy possible for nineteenth-century Saints: the belief that it was right. The practice could never have been sustained for a half-century by compulsion, manipulation, or simple sexual desire. Those who set the foundation of the Latter-day Saint faith were not two-dimensional superheroes, as they are sometimes portrayed, but they were complex, strong, intelligent, full-bodied kingdom-builders who were willing to leave loved ones, wealth, comfort, and native countries for what they believed to be true. This same willingness drove them to accept polygamy, a practice they accepted as a commandment of God instituted in their time, for His unique purposes.
So, must modern Latter-day Saints share the same conviction as early Saints that polygamy was “right”? As early as 1856, Saints who desired to receive ordinances in the temple, such as the endowment and sealing, were asked a series of questions to determine their commitment to the gospel and their worthiness to receive those sacred ordinances and blessings. Among those questions, they were asked if they had a belief in “the plurality [plural marriage].”15 Although they were not required to practice polygamy, belief in it was a measure of faithfulness before ordinances were received. This affirmation has not been required since that time.16 The essential convictions of Latter-day Saints are defined in today’s temple recommend questions—such as having faith in God the Father, a testimony of Jesus Christ as our Savior and Redeemer, and supporting and sustaining our leaders today.17 Plural marriage is not a commandment in our day, and a belief in it is not required to be a faithful, believing Church member. What is essential is that we live the gospel of Jesus Christ today and make and keep sacred covenants today.
We can gain strength from our polygamous past. How? We can talk about it. We can discard shame and embarrassment about the practice. We can make room for complexity, knowing that each Saint had a story: some had positive and others negative experiences living plurally. We can share the stories of polygamous Saints and find meaning in their devotion. We can allow their faith to invigorate our own resolve to make difficult choices and sacrifices for the gospel’s sake. We can sit in the discomfort of not having all of the answers and accept the reality that, even in important questions about polygamy, the answers may not be known right now. We can leave the burden of choice with the nineteenth-century Saints; they’ve already borne it. They knew their lives and situations better than we do. We can trust in God, as they did, and make and keep our own sacred covenants.
Polygamy was a difficult principle to live. What is remarkable, though, is that so many Saints infused plural marriage with love, compassion, and forgiveness, transcending earthly circumstances through the power of faith. Although we may never fully understand the principle, the nineteenth-century practice of plural marriage by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a legacy of faith to honor, a foundation of sacrifice to acknowledge, a history to gain strength from, and a bright testimony borne in the lives of those who practiced polygamy.
- “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” Gospel Topics Essays.
- Family History Department, “Analysis of Historical Plural Marriages in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints according to Family Tree,” 2018, unpublished research, quoted by Matthew J. Grow, in “Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults: A Face to Face Event with Elder Quentin L. Cook” (broadcast, Nauvoo, IL, Sept. 9, 2018), www.churchofjesuschrist.org.
- Felt, interview by Hulett, Mar. 26, 1935, 6.
- “Polygamy,” Newsroom, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org.
- Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” Liahona, June 1981.
- Quentin L. Cook, “Church History: A Source of Strength and Inspiration,” Ensign, July 2020, 16.
- Marcus B. Nash, “The New and Everlasting Covenant,” Ensign, December 2015.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Trust in the Lord,” Ensign, Nov. 2019.
- “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” Gospel Topics Essays.
- “Sealing Policies,” General Handbook, July 2020, 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, www.churchofjesuschrist.org.
- Relief Society minute book, Lehi Ward, Alpine Stake, Oct. 27, 1869, CHL.
- Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Come What May, and Love It,” Ensign, Nov. 2008.
- Carole M. Stephens, “The Family is of God,” Ensign, May 2015.
- Sarah Comstock, “The Mormon Woman,” Collier’s: The National Weekly 44 (Nov. 6, 1909): 17.
- See Edward L. Kimball, “The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards,” Journal of Mormon History 24, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 139, 144–46.
- “Church Policies and Guidelines,” General Handbook, 38.4.4.
- Russell M. Nelson, “Concluding Remarks,” Ensign, Nov. 2019.