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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. Edward

    It is interesting seeing the modern day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dance around the polygamy issue. Their prophet and founder, Joseph Smith says god instructed him to teach people to commit polygamy. Yet the modern Mormon presidents all give speeches that seem to say it is "some other Mormon church" that started polygamy. The Mormon presidents sternly denounce polygamy in their speeches. Yet, if you talk to a Mormon in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they will defend polygamy during the early years of their church, and say if the President/Prophet were to tell them to commit polygamy again, they would do so!! How can a rational human being place their eternity in the hand of a Prophet that tells them to commit adultery/polygamy !!!!

    October 25, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  2. maggie

    please, please tell me how all these children are being supported? It seems a lot of lexus vehicles are scurring around the compound and children are being neglected by their Father. What low self worth these women have.Tax payers beware

    October 25, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
  3. qmcs

    All wackos! Mormons-Hitler-Scientology-Christians, there is hardly a baboons hair of difference between them all. No religion = happy people, not paranoid, self righteous nut cases

    October 25, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
  4. Steve

    Actually, the mainstream LDS Church still teaches that polygamy is God's way and will be restored after Christ returns. It will be practiced in the highest Heaven (the Celestial Kingdom), which is reserved for faithful Temple-going Mormons only. That's why men are allowed to be sealed to more than one woman in the Temple, but not the other way around. If a man's first eternal wife dies and he remarries, he can be sealed to that wife for eternity as well.

    October 25, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  5. R

    Who cares? They are all consenting adults and should be allowed to live however they want. They are hurting no one.

    October 25, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  6. Notquite

    I am a Mormon and so this comes from the horses mouth so to speak. The LDS church does NOT replace the Bible with the Book of Mormon. It is a completely seperate record. We read typically from the King James version of the Bible and believe it's words. Both testify of Jesus Christ as our savior and both are held with the same regard.

    To those of you who go on about South Park and all the information you have "heard" about people like Joseph Smith or Brigham Young, take a nice deep breath. Members of the LDS faith don't expect to convince anyone of their belief on their own. All we ask (all we ever ask) is for people to read the Book of Mormon themselves, and ask God in prayer if its true. Simple enough no? After all, if you want absolute truth might as well go to the source.

    October 25, 2010 at 7:18 pm |
    • scarecrowfromoz

      And the answer was it is a bunch of horse hockey. Anyone who has read any amount of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, History of the Church, Journal of Discourses, etc. (all cult approved sources) will realize what a fabrication the cult founded by Joseph Smith is.

      October 25, 2010 at 10:44 pm |
  7. Jimbo

    Utter and complete horse sh-t on every conceivable level not to mention gross insults to the intelligence.

    October 25, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
  8. m9

    I am so creeped out by these people. Only a dude would have thought of this. Conversely, no woman alive would WANT 8 husbands!

    October 25, 2010 at 7:06 pm |
  9. SteveC

    I think the reaction of most evolutionary psychologists would be: yawn. These FLDS are merely recognizing and formalizing what many men already do informally. Or do formally but in a negative way: my Catholic grandfather was married and divorced seven times.

    October 25, 2010 at 7:01 pm |
  10. GillenH20

    A very interesting history article. Perhaps in the 19th century, having multiple wives in a developing new country might have made good sense. It would be much more challenging in the 21rst century, but, why not? I certainly would not want to have more than one wife, but to each his own. Heck, if they pass a gay marriage law in Utah, a fellow could have wives AND husbans too if that made him happy!

    October 25, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
    • GillenH20

      Sorry... make that "husbands." Typo.

      October 25, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
    • R.

      No, it has never made sense for repopulation. See my reply above to "Mormon." Five woman with one husband can not have more children with him than they would have with five separate husbands, and it fact will probably have less sense they don't sleep with him as often. This is supported by looking at the polygamous families of the early Mormon leaders. Many of the women had 1 or 2, maybe at most 4 or 5 children. Meanwhile in this time era, most women married to one man were having 8-10 children. There was also a over abundance of men in UT (as supported by every census from 1850 on), so there was no reason for men to have multiple wives to repopulate UT except that Joseph Smith got caught with his pants down by his wife Emma, so he wrote the whole thing about plural marriages into the LDS Doctrine and Covenants as a direct order from God.

      October 25, 2010 at 10:31 pm |
  11. Confess

    I don't see the big deal. If that's what they're into and they are not harming anyone else, that's fine. Next...

    October 25, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  12. Dhulfiqar

    Just to add to Muneef comments about Islamic polygamy:

    In the pre-Islamic era polygamy was rampant and unchecked. Men had dozens of wives and the rights of women were often suppressed. Islam created such stringent rules on polygamy that it made it difficult to abide the rulings.

    For example the wives may not live in the same house. The husband must provide equal living arrangements (i.e. another home) for each wife. And he must treat each wife equally. The rules are so strict that Qur'an itself says, it's near possible:

    Qur'an:
    "... then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one... this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course."

    It's insisting you marry one woman because you (man) cannot be just.

    In another verse from Qur'an it states:
    "Howsoever you may try you will never be able to treat your wives justly. But do not incline (to one) exclusively and leave (the other) . suspended (as it were). Yet if you effect a reconciliation and safeguard yourselves with full awareness of divine laws, God is oftforgiving, merciful."

    Concisely, Islam, in unequivocal terms, though indirectly, deprecates polygamy.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
  13. msadvocate

    First off Christianity is relgious based on being followers of Christ. Everyone that claims to be a Christian is not. Humans come up with their own foolishness like the roman catholic church pray to dead saints and mary and persecuted people for example. My issue with FDLS is putting these magical golden plates on the same level as the Bible as Gods word. That bothers me. Also it is hard for us to know if it is a Romanticized Sister wives lifestyle or it is a Warren Jeffs situation. So it may be easier to just outlaw it. Having multiple wives or husband is not a religious thing, many people across the world have taken part of it. It is just not something that we do in our society, it does not fit in this society.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
    • dinneratgraces

      But who is to say what fits in "this" society? Because a few say that it does not fit should that be why we outlaw the practice of polygamy?

      October 25, 2010 at 8:00 pm |
  14. Luna

    I actually like this show. I'm not a reality TV kind of person (except for LA Ink) and I thought it was going to be more religious based, but it wasn't. These women are certainly not stupid and the first three marriages seem to be long lasting, 20, 18 and 16 years. Problems yes, but whose marriage doesn't have rough spots? Live and let live. Life's too short to worry about who's sleeping with who. Or is that whom?

    October 25, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
  15. MollyBee

    I have to say it again....sometimes women are their own worst enemies. The real tragedy of polegamy is the abuse of young women and the teaching of young men that women are property to be owned by men.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
    • m9

      Preach on, sista!

      October 25, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
  16. Ty

    To anyone who thinks the mainstream LDS church violated its own prophetic revelations by banning plural marriage simply because of governmental pressure to do so I would direct their attention to a doctrine laid down by Joseph Smith 1842, 48 years before Wilford Woodruff's declaration. The Twelfth Article Faith, regarded as scripture by both fundamentalist members and mainstream members alike reads, "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law." Clearly God did not intend for the LDS faith to start a war over the practice of plural marriage and in adjusting their lifestyles to fit the mandates of the government they were indeed sticking to their fundamental beliefs.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:33 pm |
  17. IowaSue

    I have watched the show and found it disturbing. I do believe if what you are doing isn't hurting yourself or others, you have every right to be happy. I finally figured out what bothered me so much: although they are happy, the women do not have the same right as the men. There is unequal power no matter what is said.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  18. Iconoclast

    "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."
    Hahahahahaha, oh man. Really? I mean, really?

    October 25, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
  19. bethkat

    Honestly, I wouldn't mind it if my husband had another "wife" to help with the housework and deal with him when I didn't feel like it. But, I am not a jealous person by nature. Some people are to insecure to even consider this thought. That being said, I think that this takes very careful planning to make it work, you have to have the correct mix of personalities otherwise the whole thing is going to blow up. I just hope they have the right group, for the sake of the whole family.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
    • Smite Me

      bethkat,

      I don't know you - maybe you would like it - but I think you'd be better off hiring household help, so you'd have more time and energy for yourself... and for him. Can't afford it?... sounds better to me than turning half of your financial rights over to someone else.

      October 25, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
  20. Rick

    "They went into plural marriages as consenting adults with eyes, hearts and minds open." problem is, no one who believes in a mythological all-powerful, all-knowing being has mind that is open.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:22 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.