Polygamy in context

mormon polygamyLast week we discussed the need for reporters to distinguish between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the comments, reader Michael Nielsen -- a Mormon social psychologist -- pointed us toward an op-ed he wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune that argued for improved information about the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church:

To deny polygamy's importance to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormonism is, well, to be in denial. Many Latter-day Saints prefer to avoid polygamy or to think that it has no bearing on the present, but this is pointless if we are to consider what other people think of the church. Evidence of this is found in the results of a recent Vanderbilt study on bias against Mitt Romney and Mormons. Negative opinions in the study shifted markedly when people were provided "clear, accurate information" about polygamy and other stereotypes regarding Mormonism.

From my reading of newspaper letters, article comments and blogs, it seems that defenders of the church too often provide information that is clear but inaccurate or incomplete. For example, it strikes an observer as disingenuous when told "the LDS Church has nothing to do with polygamy," as I've read in the comments to several newspaper articles in recent days. Clear? Yes. Accurate? Not so much.

As if on cue, Peggy Fletcher Stack, ace religion reporter for the Tribune, filed a comprehensive look at the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church. Headlined "Modern-day Mormons disavow polygamy," the article explains exactly how the LDS came to practice polygamy, how it was discontinued, and what the current view is. She explains, for her non-Mormon readers, that Mormons do not live in isolated compounds, arrange marriages, dress in clothing from the 19th century or wear, as a rule, unusual hairstyles.

Stack explains how LDS founder Joseph Smith was inspired by Old Testament figures who had multiple wives and recorded that he received a revelation in 1843 defining "a new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also the plurality of wives":

After Smith's death in 1844, Mormon pioneers took plural marriage to their Great Basin kingdom in Utah. There it flourished, first in secret and then openly, until the U.S. government stripped polygamists of their right to vote, hold office or own property. It eventually disincorporated the LDS Church itself and refused to allow Utah to become a state. . . .

Though the LDS Church had disavowed polygamy, it is still enshrined in Mormon scripture (Doctrine & Covenants 132) and some believe it will one day be re-established, if not on Earth, at least in heaven. In his quasi-official 1966 book Mormon Doctrine, which remains in print, the late LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that "the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming and the ushering in of the millennium."

And by policy, men can be "sealed" for eternity in LDS temple rites to more than one wife, though women are permitted only a single sealing.

Three of the church's current apostles, for example, were widowed and remarried. Each will have two wives in the eternities.

Stack explains how Mormons see the polygamy of the past differently than they view its contemporary use.

One of the things she gets into is the economic motivation for the polygamous Mormon communities at their height in the 1860s. According to a scholar she interviews, many of the second, third or otherwise plural wives were widowed, divorced, or had no other men to take care of them. That's a major difference from the FLDS where boys are routinely kicked out to keep up the supply of plural wives. Religion & Ethics' Lucky Severson had a fantastic news piece about this back in November, but I haven't seen much coverage now that the FLDS are back in the news. Slate was one notable exception.

Stories have also failed to explain the general economics of the FLDS. How do the families support themselves? Do they support themselves? Do taxpayers support the plural wives? What are the religious teachings related to the economics, particularly as they relate to self-sufficiency?

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