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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. drsz

    So, can I get another hubby? Cause mine sometimes forgets to take out the trash. How about line marriages, where man marries woman, who marries man, then woman and so on? At least less lonely guys out there!

    October 25, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
  2. lawcat2013

    polygamy is not even real

    October 25, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
  3. RF

    Hmmmm... Someone who wants the government to respect their marriage and decriminalize it... I can think of a few friends in California who share your plight, Ms. Wilde. The real question is what do you think of their marriages? Because, if you think they are an abomination, well, perhaps you deserve similar respect in turn.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
  4. Margo Zargo

    Do they all get VD and other STDs at the same time or do they just keep giving them over and over and over......to each other.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
  5. Alyssa

    PLEASE do your research ... the FLDS are not 'mormon' if you are going to claim to be 'top reporters' a quick Google seach would have told you that. Mormons do not practice polygamy ... ignorance is not bliss!!!

    October 25, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
    • cmf

      Alyssa, do YOUR research! If you are really a mormon then you should know that the church claims that Polygamy is practiced in the Celestial Kingdom. It USED to claim that in order to get there you HAD to practice polygamy. I am mormon and I go to church every Sunday. I also know that we have had some kooky beliefs that have changed over time. I'm hoping that someday we admit to ourselves that this one is a looser and was never real from the beginning. It is the ONE revelation that was not a real revelation. What God would force a man to lie to his wife to have over 30 other wives? That man/wife relationship is something that God would never interfere with. Joseph Smith was dead wrong about polygamy.

      July 14, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  6. Jessica

    Interesting article, even more interesting are people's hate filled responses. 😦
    Child brides are indeed unacceptable, and marrying just to acquire a workforce or "more wives" is something I would deem ridiculous and stupid. The show really did keep the religion mostly out of the picture. But people should be allowed to love how they want. Love comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders and packages. They really come across as four people that are really are in love, all with the same man, and committed to building a stable, warm, loving, accepting and "good" life for their children. That family is stronger and closer than most "normal" families. Even when they all would sit down and talk as a family, they all actually communicate. They share their feelings open and honestly, without fear, screaming, or yelling. They calmly and clearly communicate. Most kids these days live in fear and don't know how to communicate so much as what they want for dinner, let alone important life changing opinions and feelings. And it is because of their parents. It was really amazing to watch on the show.

    That article was interesting, I wish it talked more about the actual "sister wives" aspect. They started to represent it when that "wilde" woman started explaining it, but that was all the way at the end of the article. I think if more people would talk about it, explain it, the way she did, maybe people would start to see it differently. Sad how closed off everyone is because of things like fear and stereotypes. 😦

    October 25, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
  7. Steve

    Valerie said"Valerie

    You DO realize the Catholic Church is the ONLY church founded by Jesus Christ himself, don't you?

    The ONLY church."

    PROVE IT. Just because some book says so? You do know that the Jews believe that the catholic church is the church of the anti-christ?
    The ONLY church.

    The catholic church routinely worships a human..the pope. Is that right? You ever seen him in person? I have, looks a lot like worship to me.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
    • DOC

      all religion was formed by the Zionist Jew's

      people today are so brainwashed b/c of religion it's not even funny , the catholic
      church a lone has 6 secret societies , but most people doesn't even know this!

      I will lay down the true fact's!!

      FACT- Christianity is a roman fairy tale story
      FACT- christans have been killing in the name of god since 200 A.D.
      FACT- christans since 200a.d. are responsible for over 100 million deaths – the Jew's 165 million
      FACT- the holy bible has scriptures taken from the Jewish book the TALMUD
      FACT- THE HOLY BIBLE WAS WRITTEN BY MEN THAT WERE IN SECRET SOCIETIES
      FACT- king James was in 3 secret societies
      FACT- king james was a murder and a traitor
      FACT- the holy bible has over 1085 mis-translated words
      FACT- the rapture is not even in the holy bible
      FACT- there was no Jesus Christ

      FACT'S ARE FACT'S , and people have a right to believe , but knowing and believing is way too different things!

      October 31, 2010 at 10:30 pm |
  8. Jessica

    Interesting article, even more interesting are people's hate filled responses. 😦
    Child brides are indeed unacceptable, and marrying just to acquire a workforce or "more wives" is something I would deem ridiculous and stupid. The show really did keep the religion mostly out of the picture. But people should be allowed to love how they want. Love comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders and packages. They really come across as four people that are really are in love, all with the same man, and deeply committed to building a stable, warm, loving, accepting and "good" life for their children. That family is stronger and closer than most "normal" families. Even when they all would sit down and talk as a family, they all actually communicate. They share their feelings open and honestly, without fear, screaming, or yelling. They calmly and clearly communicate. Most kids these days live in fear and don't know how to communicate so much as what they want for dinner, let alone important life changing opinions and feelings. And it is because of their parents. It was really amazing to watch on the show.

    That article was interesting, I wish it talked more about the actual "sister wives" aspect. They started to represent it when that "wilde" woman started explaining it, but that was all the way at the end of the article. I think if more people would talk about it, explain it, the way she did, maybe people would start to see it differently. Sad how closed off everyone is because of things like fear and stereotypes. 😦

    October 25, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
  9. Steve

    Its time for the gov. to get out of our bedrooms. There are more important things for them to harrass us about. WHO says that marriage is between one man and one woman? THE BIBLE? Sorry, theres that nagging seperation of church and state so whatever the bible says shouldnt matter.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
  10. lilfro22

    If gays can marry, what is wrong with polygamists marrying? Not saying I support (or do not support) either one, just think it is unusual how many people will support one - gay marriage - because it is between consenting adults and "to each his own" but can accept polygamy. The same arguments will justify both.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  11. Abe

    What is worse? A person who sleeps around or lives with 5 different partners and has no commitment to any one of them, or a person who is married to 5 people and takes care of and supports them in a "spiritual marriage"? Just wait and see...after gay marriage is forced down the throat of everybody in America, multiple wives (or husbands) will be soon to follow. For better or worse, once traditional marriage is redefined, there will be no end to additional modifications of "marriage" as the next trend of convenience.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
    • dinneratgraces

      The fact that the government and the few people in power all those years ago felt that they needed to put such parameters on the act of marriage and then call it "traditional" is the problem. From some Native American tribes to cultures all over the world, polygamy has been practiced and therefore could also be considered "traditional". How is Gay marriage being rammed down anyone's throat? How does Gay marriage or polygamist marriage effect you for you to say it is rammed down your throat?

      October 25, 2010 at 8:06 pm |
  12. BanginLotsOfChicks

    LOL and is anyone else laughing one of the mormon leaders who married 56 women was named "Brigham Young"

    Bring Em Young!

    October 25, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
    • Luna

      What are you – 12YO? I'm going to assume between your post and the juvenile name, you're not.

      October 25, 2010 at 7:03 pm |
  13. Flora

    I believe that the gov't should have no bearing on how we conduct ourselves in the bedroom (so long as no on is being hurt), but I think polygamy is one of the last things that should be decriminalized.

    There is no way that one man can provide for multiple people, plus their children, and still stay above the poverty line. Even if the women were allowed to work (a fairly uncommon occurance, to my understanding), every one of them would have to work full-tim to support that lifestyle – so who does that leave with the kids? It's a family model that's doomed to fail.

    And that doesn't even touch the fact that it's a mockery – not just of marriage – but of human relationships in general. Truly loving your spouse is "I love you and no one else" not "I love you, and you, and you, and you, and you...". If adultery is grounds for divorce, then polygamy is divorce ground zero; no good can come of it.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
  14. BanginLotsOfChicks

    Guess what. I can bang lots of chicks too. It's called "Being SINGLE". You don't have to join a cult or brainwash anyone to do it either.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  15. tnoutside

    Just more religious CRAZY.
    Religion should be outlawed.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
    • Flora

      And comments like those are somehow SO much better...

      I'm a devout Christian and I'm still way more tolerant than you. I can say that I've never screamed for the banning of a belief simply because I don't like it, but obviously you can't. Good night Rev. Falwell...

      October 25, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  16. naughtydog

    I watched the entire season of Sister Wives. I grew more and more angry with the wives. They are idiots to put up with this arrangement. Marriage is hard enough in a monogamous relationship, but add multiple wives, and it's way more dysfunctional then any other monogamous marriage.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
  17. Scott

    Polygamy is older than monogamy and goes back a heck of a lot further than the mormon church, alot older than christ even.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
  18. Melissa

    gabluefox, christians ARE a cult, just like all other religions.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
  19. Lineman

    This guy has got it made. He has four women bringing in paychecks for his household and four women to watch the kids. With four women at least one should always be available. It wasn't much of stretch for Joseph Smith to have a "revelation" like that, he was no dummy even if he thought women were. The trick is finding women who have low enough self esteem to go along with it. Most women won't put up with another girlfriend let alone a wife.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
    • Tiff

      Based on information in the show, all of the wives arent bringing home paychecks.

      October 25, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
  20. Melissa

    Religion is a curse on this planet.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
    • Flora

      Between faith and your obvious bigotry... I'm much happier with my faith.

      October 25, 2010 at 6:04 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.