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"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.”


soundoff (688 Responses)
  1. Inmigracion

    I used to be wishing I might obtain an write-up such as this with all the current info I wanted to acquire my personal term paper completed.... Thanks a lot.
    Inmigracion http://en.netlog.com/masonmcreynolds/blog/blogid=29010173

    September 11, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  2. dwight

    Polygamy is about being selfish and growing mormonism pure and simple. In the beginning Joseph Smith didn't teach polygamy until Brigham Young suggested it and then then he wrote it in to a later edict. Even Joseph Smith's wife balked at this and refused to have a sister wife. The book of Mormon doesn't talk about polygamy and the Bible never promotes it. Jesus did say, "a man shall leave his family and cleave to his wife and they shall become one," which leaves very little room for anybody that believes in Jesus to think that he was promoting polygamy. The Book of Mormon is a mess compared to the well organized Bible. Barges that were "like a dish" and animals in South America that were actually brought later or the America natives being a lost Jewish people and no trace of this by any archeologist. At least every place and most of the people mentioned in the Bible have been verified.

    March 28, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Here's another my fairy tale is better than your fairy tale...

      March 28, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  3. dwight

    People are asking for empirical truth to does God exist and yet there is no empirical truth to why atoms stay together and particles don't go flying off in all directions. There must be some kind of weak force? Really. Hasn't been proved so it doesn't exist. Most science is built on layers of knowledge that changes constantly when new knowldedge is discovered and really is based on faith. All science is about is trying to quantify and qualify the natural world and it fails miserably at times. Newton and Einestein made theories that are now in question, but what do you replace them with...string theory. Ironically most Christians have high degrees in science and still believe in God, becuase they recognize thatw scuience is belief also.

    March 28, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      incorrect.
      Science is the search for truth, and yes they sometimes get it wrong, but correct and move on, always with the goal of verifiying information.

      Religion makes up information out of thin air.

      Science is not a belief...it is a tool we use to find knowledge. Religion makes up information and when it conflicts with real information we gain using science, religion tried to alter itself to fit reality.

      March 28, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  4. George Aligbo

    Do not follow the teaching of evil men ,but follow words ofGod

    February 8, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • End Religion

      Your god doesn't exist. What other imaginary buddies do you suggest we follow?

      February 8, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • Chad

      @End Religion "Your god doesn't exist."
      @Chad "what evidence do you have to back up that claim?

      February 8, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      @Chad

      It's irrelevant whether or not invisible and undetectable beings exist. Their existence is of no consequence.

      February 8, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
    • End Religion

      the statement “gods exist” is a positive claim.
      the statement “gods do not exist” is a negative claim that only responds to the positive one.

      The very first person who uttered "god exists" had the burden of proof which has not yet been satisfied. When it is satisfied, "gods do not exist" will then be a claim that requires proof.

      Chad, please get busy with the empirical evidence of any god's existence which is supported by a 2/3 majority of physicists (the dudes who best understand the rules governing our reality). You know, the EE we've been asking for which you have not yet provided, although you will likely provide your list of non-evidence such as "I can see the bible, therefore its contents are true."

      As for your god in particular, that nefarious cloud dweller has a fictional book as the original source to its claim of existence. We understand the book is a cobbling together of myths, folklore, local legend and possibly some decent home cleaning tips, fraudulently claimed as the word of your god. The book is either 1) inerrant or 2) allegory. We can quickly show thousands of ways #1 cannot be true within our reality but we only need one to show it is inerrant. And frankly, #2 by definition is not fact but interpretation.

      February 8, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • Chad

      @Moby Schtick " Their existence is of no consequence."
      @Chad "It doesnt matter if the God of Israel is real?

      whoa

      that's an irrational statement, if the God of Israel is real, you are in DEEP DEEP trouble. You are staring down the barrel of an eternity of despair.

      February 8, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • Chad

      @End Religion "Your god doesn't exist"

      @Chad "what evidence do you have to support your claim?"

      you made a claim

      support it

      what evidence do you have?

      none?

      February 8, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
    • dwight

      Chad, How do I know you exist? All I have is your word if that is really you and not somebody else. Really. Science explains a lot of things until they replace it with some new discovery. Does a black hole exist? They can see the effects, but not the source. Why can two photons affect each other from a distance? But we believe despite it being contradictory to why it should happen. You should ask instead, "considering the odds of life happening in exactly the correct order and in such a compressed amount of time why do I or any life exist?"

      March 28, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  5. Barbara

    How about a show on TLC called "Brother Husbands" ! How would that be received ?????

    January 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • david

      pse bab at sometimes,let reality be reality.

      November 26, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  6. Brenda

    I just finished reading The 19th Wife and doing a lot of studying (after voting for Mitt Romney..crap)..and now I see the light..this is a vicious and sick belief..Look up on wiki and you'll see they also supported abortion back in the 1800's as well as the polygamy and murder..what a sick bunch of MF's

    December 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  7. Heather

    Really people??? I remember hearing that America was a land of freedom where we fled to be able to worship and live in peace as we see fit. By all means make laws I.E. You cant kill people for no good reason... Things like that but when it comes to a persons personal relationship with their significant other it is no-ones business. Any good relationship has rules and a moral code that those parties involved have agreed upon. if it works for them and it's not getting thrown in your face, why worry about it. They arent trying to offend anyone, they simply want to be left to practice their beliefs simply and quietly for the most part, as we all do. Relationships with more that one partner can work with the right combination of people and enough communication. Trust me. I know. I give cudoos to any man that can make more than one woman feel special enough that she wants to be with him the rest of her life.

    December 14, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  8. Ted

    In an age in which divorce is common and many people end up practicing "serial monogamy"' and in an age in which gays have been given rights to marriage it appears strange for people to have qualms about polygamy. At an age in which our government seeks to widen the gap between the religious and the secular maybe the State would be better off the back off the idea of regulating plural marriage. Perhaps this could fall under the contoversial "righ to proivacy" whch the freedom on choice people like to talk about so much.

    November 26, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  9. Noko

    Funny how looking only at yoleursf you start to believe life is hard, you have problems or issues, and life can just get you down. It isn't until you truly start to look at others, that you can see you are not alone, that everyone has problems, and often much worse problems than yours!

    July 29, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  10. Tom McDermott

    Like to know more about being with you

    June 11, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  11. Linda

    I think its great what ur doing, if been a sister wife for a while in England
    and its great

    February 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  12. RUSERIOUS?!

    Soooooo, let me get this straight....Jesus came before John Smith and says to him, "John, I have a new proclomation, forget the previous actions about marriage from my father, I have a new bible, which in it tells you that its okay to have multiple wives, if you have to live in multiple houses its okay the children are so confuse they will have no idea what you all are doing. Also, I have a surprise, when one of my members (i.e. Warren Jeff) does something you dont like, break away altogether and create mulitiple communities. While the law of our land at this time does not recognize plural marriages, its only because the Country was founded on CHRISTIAN principles which says that it is wrong to commit adultery. So if, mormons or fundamentalist mormons are christians then which bible do they believe JOHN SMITHS or JUDAIC BIBLE? Also, in their minds there are no such things as BIGOTRY or ADULTERY...these cant exist in their eyes. Its amazing how people on here says ohhhh well they are some nice people....well there are some murderers that are nice but does it make their actions RIGHT?

    December 21, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Fitzlight

      I challenge all christians to show me even one scripture from the very bible that claim to obey and follow where God at anytime condemns a man for having more than one wife. I find this practice of God very strange if He was so against a man having more than one wife why did He do this,"2Sa 12:7 And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;
      2Sa 12:8 And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things."
      Was He setting David up to sin? Does God do such a thing? You need to get away from the teaching od men and get back to the bible.;

      January 22, 2012 at 3:44 am |
  13. Evan Davis

    Hey folks, Will likely be the U.S. far much better off staying with Syria's Assad?

    December 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  14. radicalnessification

    I am all for freedom of marriage, but I would be on the side of the FLDS if women were allowed to have multiple husbands. The Mormon church is based on an extremely rigid patriarchy, so I cannot really hope for equality when religion is involved.

    The beliefs of these and other fundamentalists are pretty silly. Seriously. I haven't a clue how any "believer" in this nonsense can ever question someone else's views. You want to marry a man who already has a dozen wives, go ahead. But please, do not have a monstrous amount of offspring. We really do not need any more religious fundamentalists in this world.

    November 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • thatgirlfela

      I agree without you totally.Why can't the women have multiple husbands since the so called men of god had many wives?what the hell is wrong with these women? In the bible it never says men have many wives it says clearly one man and one woman becomes one flesh.The bible is speaking of men that had many wives not yourself having wives.Read the bible 1st and translate it properly and don't use it to brainwash people.

      January 4, 2014 at 6:02 pm |
      • myweightinwords

        Your comment is not very clear. Have you read the bible? Many of the men in it had multiple wives. It was the accepted, traditional understanding of marriage at the time.

        What a person believes is none of anyone's business but their own. If those women enter into their plural marriage knowingly and willingly, that is between them and their husband and their sister wives. Just because you disagree doesn't make it wrong.

        I would like to see multiple marriage legalized and equal. Sure, it would mean a lot of laws would need to be reworked to make it fair and not an undue burden, but it could be done. Gay, straight, bi, many wives, one husband, many husbands one wife, several of each. What goes on in a relationship shouldn't matter to anyone outside of it.

        January 4, 2014 at 6:11 pm |
  15. The commenter

    Sick, disgusting, show.

    November 1, 2011 at 1:34 am |
  16. Catherine

    So the Sister Wives are fundamentalist mormons not to be confused with the FLDS church? I thought they were the same belief system, except that fundamentalist mormons did not believe in arranged marriage...
    If they want to separate themselves from the FLDS church they need to come up with a "new church/belief" name so that they are not "painted with the same brush stroke."

    October 26, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
  17. Clay

    I think if one spent time reading the Bible , you woul dunderstand what they are saying.. we alow a MUSLUN Mosk in NY where they distroyed the twin towers but - we are worried about this ,,,, ,, get over it ,, people.

    October 9, 2011 at 4:45 am |
    • Amanduh

      ??? What is a Muslin Mosk???

      July 14, 2012 at 1:02 am |
  18. Linda

    First off, I am crazy for writing in this forum. I just was made crazy by all the absurd comments prevously and now. Before anyone can honestly criticize another religious belief, you have to explore for many years, How, Why, When, Where, and What. I would never question God my Father, He is perfect. Perfect means you make no mistakes. Jesus is the same way. Since religion exists for us created by Our Father and His Son, no one has the right to make decisions for them or say someone else is crazy for what they believe. This is how wars get started because no one has tolerance for another persons beliefs or ideas. I don't mind discussing religion, but you all are not doing that. You are creaming each other. Does it make you happy?

    September 29, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.