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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. Louise

    I think people should be able to run their lives as they see fit as long as they can take care of the family and don't live off the state. I've seen monogamous marriages that were more dysfunctional than the Browns.

    I have one question, though. Kody says that love should be multiplied and not divided. I wonder if he'd be in favor of his wives multiplying their love the way he has by bringing in other "husbands". I suspect he would then think that dividing love isn't such a bad idea.

    C'est la vie!

    September 25, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
  2. Alex

    Hi! God Bless You! Kody Brown is my penpal friends. I am a hungarian man. I am looking two or three christian girl for plural marriage. I am 5 ft, and 3 inches heigths, my age is 42. I am nonsmoker, sports men. I live in Hungary, Europe, but I plan the migration to USA. My ideal partner. : 5-5,5 ft height, 25-35 year, emotional, pretty girl. My contact: dimeola@freemail.hu

    August 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  3. Charly Brains

    yeap! This article was about what I was trying to explain to other persons: LDS and FLDS follow the same beliefs, traditions and books with the only difference on who's the president/prophet of which flock... btw poor flock... 😦

    August 10, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  4. cmf

    Scott, did Adam have more than one wife or was Eve his only one? Seems to me your not that smart. Polygamy is female slavery. It's a ball and chain to the Mormon Church that they just can't seem to shake.

    July 14, 2011 at 12:20 am |
    • Louise

      cmf wrote: "Scott, did Adam have more than one wife or was Eve his only one? Seems to me your not that smart. Polygamy is female slavery. It's a ball and chain to the Mormon Church that they just can't seem to shake."

      Polygamy is no more female slavery than monogamy is. It's exactly the same situation. There are far more monogamous wives aho are slaves to their husbands than polygamous ones, even as a percentage. I'd be willing to bet that monogamy is more responsible for abuse of wives than polygamy is. I'm noy a polygamist but I can see the advantages of it.

      ........

      September 25, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
  5. Zeba Zeba

    For some reason, my wife strongly disagrees with Polygamy, I kinda think it would be fun. But goodness, to support all those children? I'm assuming the women have jobs/income? I had a professor from Liberia, his father had 7 wives, they each had their own hut, the main house was for the head of the tribe (his father) and he would spend one night each week with a different wife. For some reason, here in America, my professor's wife didn't like the idea....90 children total. Unreal.

    July 13, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  6. Morman guy

    Polygamy is the higher law and I can't wait to practice it in the next life lol. God is unchanging in his beliefs and is the same now as he was before the creation of this little rock and so if he was once like us and we like him before his exaultation then we if we are to be like him, will have more than one wife because unconditional love means the ability to share one self with more than one person and scientifically the birth rate of woman to men is 7 to 1 globally, so do the 6 out 7 woman just sit by and opt out of love and raising a family lol. To every LDS member who thinks that they will not be polygamous in the next life if they are to enter into the highest degree of glory are not going to be going there lol.

    July 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • anon

      If unconditional loves means the ability to share one's self with more than one person, than why are only men allowed to have multiple spouses in the Mormon religion? Why can't women have multiple husbands? Does this mean that only men can enter into the "highest degree of glory", since only men are sharing themselves with more than one person?

      July 13, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • Lola

      Would love 5-6 husbands with good incomes !

      July 13, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Mamulya

      Lola: 5-6 mothers-in-law; 5-6spoiled like brats husbands, picking up socks after all 5-6 of them? Rather go to convent,s erve got in his purest form. Why aren't Mormon men choosing celibacy to serve god?

      July 15, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  7. Jonathan

    I Agree with what Ron said, "God commanded Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and other biblical prophet to take more than one wife to build up a chosen people. People who take it upon themselves to practice polygamy are adulterers. One must be a true prophet to receive that revelation and it's usually only for a period of time."

    It definately appears that these people are choosing to do this completely on their own.

    Apart from that, when the article refers to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints's book of Doctrine and Covenants as being a Book of Mormon Scripture, this is completely wrong, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon are two completely different books. I really wish the people writing these articles would get their information right for the sake of respect of the organizations they are talking about.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • cmf

      Jonathan, God did NOT tell Abraham, Issac, Jacob and on and on...to take extra wives. Come on. Get it right. God told Abraham to LISTEN to his wife who simply wanted to help them both have children. Issac only had ONE wife. Jacob was initially tricked into having two wives....and then the women went nuts trying to out-do each other with the old fashioned version of "rent a womb" or surragate motherhood. If Joseph Smith really was told to restore polygamy as it was practiced in the days of old then he certainly didn't need to load up on 30 plus wives, most of them in secret and some of them already married, though some who were married refused him. I'm a mormon too and this history stinks to high heaven. I've done my research and this is the ONE revelation that is BUNK. The LDS Church would do well to divorce itself from this revelation.

      July 13, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  8. Ron

    God commanded Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and other biblical prophet to take more than one wife to build up a chosen people. People who take it upon themselves to practice polygamy are adulterers. One must be a true prophet to receive that revelation and it's usually only for a period of time. These nuts that are practicing it today are doing it on their own as far as I can tell.

    June 28, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • cmf

      Ron, read what I said to Jon. If you really knew how Joseph Smith actually practiced polygamy and if you really knew how it was practiced in the Old Testament, you wouldn't say such things. Come on. Study up. The LDS Church would do well to divorce itself from this revelation just like it did from blacks and the priesthood. The Church can grow and change. I hope it can survive knowing the truth even it is a little disturbing. Did we need the reference to violence in the old temple ceremonies? Hmmm. Maybe we didn't. Maybe we don't need polygamy in heaven either. Though it is a nice male fantasy.

      July 14, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  9. Mary

    I found the show interesting and informative. I personally could not be a sister wife as I would have jealousy issues. I don't think I could handle it. I have to give Mary, Janelle, Christine and Robyn a lot of credit.
    I think that Kody is handsome and gorgeoous, BUT hey, why he is SO happy??? He has the "pick of the liter" every night!
    He knows he is going to get "his!" (EVERY NIGHT!)

    January 24, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • Michael

      I would not give the women "credit." Credit for what? I believe there is some jealousy issues within this family whether they admit it or not.

      July 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  10. Ashley

    I believe that God created 1 man and 1 woman, period. I can not understand at all where you can actually share your husband with other women? Marriage is supposed to be a sacred thing. All I know is the comment that one individual made about the FACTS of the BIBLE, "If you READ it then you would know what you posted was foolish"

    December 21, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
  11. Phyllis

    I still think being with one person your entire life doesn't work! I am sick of people taking the Bible literally!! Have some common sense!

    December 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
    • Christine

      I have no problem with polygamy. The Browns seem to be well adjusted and their kids look happy and healthy. I thnk they are brave for coming out on national television. Marriages have enough problems without the government getting involved. Props to the Browns I hope they continue to be the happiest family that they can be.

      April 5, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  12. FormerNY

    While I do not wish to enter a plural marriage myself, I do question the government;s right to make laws about this practice.

    I see no reason why the government whoudl be allowed to make laws concerning who I can and cannot marry. Yes that includes Gay marriage. Again, I have no desire to enter in to a Gay Marriage either.

    The Government should not make laws banning practice or principle unless this prectice or principle have direct, lasting and negative effect on those around us.

    You may not like these kinds of marriages, but truthfully, how does this harm you?

    Changing demographics is not hurting you.

    Opening your kids eyes to alternative beliefs is not hurting you or your kids.

    November 29, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  13. Jesus

    S*#t is wish I would have thought of this- a different partner every night!

    November 29, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  14. Jim

    If marriage is redefined to allow gay marriage, how can legalized polygamy logically be far behind?

    November 29, 2010 at 7:19 am |
    • belovedimmortalmy

      @Jim: you make a good point.
      I think if gay marriage is legalized, then it would be logical for plural marriages to be legalized. And then plural marriages should allow for unions between 1 man and multiple women AND 1 woman and multiple men, plus everyone else that falls in between male and female.
      The question of legalizing plural marriages is a real conundrum, even for liberal people who support gay marriage. Personally, the thought of plural unions makes me shudder and I think most women and even men naturally have jealous natures. Also, the thought of supporting tons of children would surely make many men think twice. But as long as polygamists act responsibly (ie don't purposely rely on welfare to feed tons of children) and establish a legal minimum age, I don't see their way of life imposing on mine.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • belovedimmortalmy

      You hear about men moving from woman to woman, fathering children here and there, and then abandoning them (and I suppose there is vice versa happening too). And there are men with double lives, who have affairs, mistresses, and illegitimate children. I hate to say this, but the husband from Sister Wives seems to be way more responsible in his plural marriage compared to men who are pretty much polygamists without the legal/spiritual marriages. I definitely don't promote plural marriages and polygamy, but I don't think that gives me the right to ILLEGALIZE them.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • belovedimmortalmy

      I think plural marriage would be a more palatable issue if it weren't for religious cults that enable perverted child rapists and promote a strict, antiquated, isolated way of life.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  15. Gary

    despite being agnostic myself I have to laugh @ protestant church goers who claims Cathlics are not Christians. I have been to several Catholic masses have read the bible and no church is more Christ like than Catholasim..

    November 24, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  16. Gary

    all religions and religious folks are the same. Fanatical and nutz

    November 24, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  17. reformer

    @ Mesa Mick I have a question for you I am not trying to gang up on you or bust you out, I am really interested if you could explain to me if you are an atheist than why are you thanking God? being an atheist you don't believe there is a God correct ? So why than do you thank some one you don't believe in? Just wondering if you can logically explain that to me.

    November 20, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
    • Hawke

      What mesa mick posted to me is more a dry sense of humor and ironic-not to be taken literally and certainly not to be explained logically. Where's your sense of humor? I appreciate mesa mick's satirical wit! It's refreshing.

      January 3, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  18. Lisa 2

    honestly religious differences aside who wants their man to be shared between more than one woman?

    November 16, 2010 at 10:34 am |
  19. TheRationale

    Mormonism is just ridiculous. I just do not know how people believe this nonsense.

    November 14, 2010 at 12:24 am |
  20. thomasWY

    i think you should watch this movie about mormons and the book of mormon, don't prertend to know everything about them if you haven't given it a chance...! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkKblIMfmjI

    November 10, 2010 at 7:56 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.