"Sister Wives" explained: A fundamentalist Mormon polygamy primer
October 25th, 2010
10:33 AM ET

"Sister Wives" explained: A fundamentalist Mormon polygamy primer

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

Going where no reality show cameras had gone before, TLC this fall aired “Sister Wives,” a television series that invited voyeurs into the lives of a fundamentalist Mormon family that practices polygamy.

The finale aired earlier this month, when Kody Brown of Lehi, Utah, married his fourth wife and, with the addition of three stepchildren, expanded his kid base to 16.

And while the show set out to reveal the human side of such families - not one sexed-up by Hollywood (think HBO’s “Big Love”) or sullied by allegations of under-aged brides (think the trial of Warren Jeffs ) - it kept details about faith out of episodes.

Maybe that was a decision by TLC producers. Or perhaps the family, which is facing possible bigamy charges, wanted to keep those aspects of their life sacred. The finale’s spiritual wedding ceremony - only Brown’s first wife is recognized legally - was off-camera, after all.

So here's a primer on what drives families like this one, religiously, historically and culturally.

"Purest at its source"

Even though polygamy was disavowed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890,  the LDS Church is still trying to shake its association with the practice, known among Mormons as plural marriage.

Joseph Smith, Jr.,  the church's founder and its first president, was the one who introduced the idea.

He established the church in 1830 after translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates that he said an angel revealed to him in New York State.

Smith - who, like all subsequent church leaders, is considered a prophet - continued to share revelations and new doctrines throughout his life. Among those revelations recorded in 1843 in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of Mormon scripture, were teachings about plural marriage.

That Smith recorded these teachings is all Anne Wilde needs to know. Wilde, 74, was raised in the mainstream LDS Church but became part of the fundamentalist Mormon movement and the second wife in a plural marriage.

“I kind of look at the gospel as a stream of water, and it’s the purest at its source,” says Wilde, a spokeswoman for Principle Voices, a Utah-based group that educates the public about polygamy. “If those are eternal doctrines, then how can man change them? They can change procedures, but when they start changing eternal doctrines that God has said…that’s where I draw a line.”

Wilde says that about 38,000 people, mostly in the western U.S., are fundamentalist Mormons - though they are affiliated with different communities.

The essential belief among those who practice plural marriages is that they are necessary to achieve the greatest exaltation in what Mormons refer to as the celestial kingdom, the highest of heavenly kingdoms.

In fact, even if LDS Church members don’t practice plural marriage on earth, their scripture still teaches that in heaven it is possible. Mormons also believe that families are sealed together for eternity.

Though historians say that Joseph Smith had numerous wives, and some estimates exceed 30, he didn’t admit it. His first wife (and only legal one) denied it, too.

Brigham Young, who succeeded Smith and in 1847 led Mormon pioneers west to what became Utah, reportedly married 56 women.

The price of going public

It wasn’t until August 1852, at the LDS Church’s general conference in Salt Lake City, that plural marriage was first spoken about publicly.

Such talk, and the open practicing of such marriages that followed, did not go over well on the national stage. Polygamy, observed in an estimated 20 to 25 percent of LDS homes at the time, was just one of the factors that prompted the U.S. government to face off with Mormon settlers in the late 1850s.

In the ensuing decades, Congress would pass a handful of laws to abolish plural marriages. By the time of the Edmunds Act of 1882, polygamy was considered a felony compared to slavery. Practitioners faced fines and prison, and even those who merely believed in the doctrine were forbidden to vote or serve in public office.

Brigham Young had died five years earlier. The LDS Church ’s third president and prophet, John Taylor, a practicing polygamist, assumed his position in 1880. With the passage of the Edmunds Act, he - like many others - was forced into hiding.

In 1886, Taylor “nailed himself to the mast” on the issue of polygamy, says Ken Driggs, an attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, who has written extensively about fundamentalist Mormons and their legal history.

This was when Taylor shared a revelation, which he said he received from both Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, upholding the practice of plural marriages.

Fundamentalist Mormons believe that Taylor shared this message with church officials who visited him. He revealed the names of those who would form a special quorum of apostles with authority to continue performing plural marriages, no matter what happened with the LDS Church, Driggs writes in a 2005 article for a Mormon journal.

The battle against Mormon polygamy continued while Taylor was underground, with 1887's Edmunds-Tucker Act forcing women to testify against their husbands, requiring anti-polygamy oaths and laying the groundwork for the U.S. government to seize high-value church properties, including temples.

Taylor died the year the law passed. He was succeeded in 1889 by Wilford Woodruff. And in 1890, Woodruff, who the Utah History Encyclopedia says initially had supported the practice of polygamy, issued what became known as the 1890 Manifesto: “I publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriages forbidden by the law of the land.”

A condition for Utah getting statehood, which it won 1896, was a ban on polygamy in its constitution. And while the LDS Church teaches that Woodruff prayed for guidance, his words have been called a declaration, not a revelation. The feeling among fundamentalist Mormons is that government pressure, not faith, was behind the end of plural marriage.

Even with the manifesto, there was dissension within. Taylor ’s son, John W. Taylor, was an apostle in the LDS Church. But he stepped down and was eventually excommunicated because of his continued support of plural marriages. For this reason he and his father are often held up as heroes among fundamentalist Mormons.

Fundamentalists splinter

What evolved in the 20th century, even after a second manifesto in 1904, was the quiet growth of a fundamentalist Mormon movement. The people within it held fast to their beliefs, even as the LDS Church tried to shut them and their practices down.

Fundamentalist Mormons see themselves as maintaining the core practices and beliefs of the LDS Church - including plural marriages. Many consider themselves Mormons, although the mainstream church itself won’t knowingly have anything to do with them and excommunicates them as quickly as it can find them.

Many LDS Church members, in fact, object to these people calling themselves fundamentalist "Mormons" as they feel there is nothing Mormon about them.

Fundamentalist Mormons say the apostles who’d been called by Taylor to perpetuate plural marriages later called new men to carry on the tradition. As a community, they settled along the Utah and Arizona border. But conflicts within the priesthood council about the succession of leadership would eventually lead to a split.

Today, there are a handful of fundamentalist Mormon groups, as well as polygamous families who call themselves independent.

Only one group has gone so far as to say that the mainstream LDS Church, in banning plural marriages, is guilty of apostasy. That group - the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - has gotten the most media attention.

The FLDS Church, with a membership of no more than 10,000, has seized headlines and spread an image of fundamentalist Mormon women wearing pastel prairie-style dresses and updos. The church's former leader, Warren Jeffs, was on the run until his 2006 arrest, and the raid on a Texas ranch in 2008 prompted allegations of forced marriages and child brides.

People like Wilde, the spokeswoman for Principle Voices, are quick to say that FLDS and fundamentalist Mormons are not synonymous.

“Please don’t paint us with the same brush,” says Wilde, who dresses in modern clothing, wears her hair short and insists that no one seeing her walk down the street would peg her as a woman in a plural marriage.

She wants people to see her, and women like her - including those featured on “Sister Wives” - as thinking and believing women.

They’re educated, she says. They work. They don’t live off the government. Their kids go to school and are showered with love and company. They have one-on-one sexual relations with their husbands. They went into plural marriages as consenting adults with eyes, hearts and minds open.

And, she says, they’re not hurting anyone.

Though Wilde’s husband died eight years ago, she says the 33-year marriage was wonderful. She won’t say how many sister wives she had - “only two of us are still living” - but she says the arrangement allowed her independence and that she never had to worry about her husband being alone.

“We don’t want it legalized. We want it decriminalized,” she says of plural, spiritual marriages. “We'd just as soon they [government officials] stay out of our marriages. Our marriage is for all time and eternity. The priesthood is the important thing, not the law of the land.”

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