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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. Bob

    The Mormon faith is one of the most successful scams going, financial success notwithstanding. It was started by a scam artist who was run out of several states before settling in a far-flung western outpost. Today, that outpost isn't so far-flung and as the area has grown, so has the number of LDS followers. They've been suckered into the Mormon lifestyle and its ludicrous doctrine, such as baptizing the dead, getting your own star when you die and, of course, polygamy - to name a few. The saddest part to me is that in this day and age there are so many people who still subscribe to Joseph Smith's "religion," which he fabricated for his own personal gain.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • Kim

      Where did you hear all of this?

      October 25, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
  2. Jen

    I don't think polygamy should be legalized – that is to say, I don't think anyone should be allowed to have more than one legal spouse. That said, as long as only one legal marriage is involved, I don't think it is anyone's business if a family wants to live in a polygamist manner and have multiple partners living in one house and call themselves married.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Only if the other women claim welfare as single mothers... if one man can provide for them all, fine!

      October 25, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  3. Michael Johnson

    The same person who started Mormonism as a convicted fraud who told a story about using a black hat and a magic rock to translate the Book of Mormon, the world's most perfect book that has had 3000 corrects had two 14 year old wives. Mormonism was started by a necromancer who carried a Jupiter Stone. Force claiming to be god's prophet Joseph Smith was a treasure hunter. Joe was one hack of a story teller. He brought the curse of polygamy to America. I've read about LDS Church leaders using their religion,fear and ignorance to force young girls into marriage. One of my Mormon ancestors married a 16 year-old girl at 54. He was a church leader in a Mormon colony in Mexican. He know the family of Mitt Romney.

    Mormon want to control the story. This is why Mormons are taught about "lying for the lord." They say: "don't fed them meat when milk will do." I can see why the leadership of the LDs Church wants to cut these people off. Notice she lost her job in Utah where Mormons run the state?

    October 25, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
    • elidude

      Preach it, Bro!

      October 25, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
    • Kim

      Where did you hear/read all of this? I generally like to find out things for myself instead of believing random people on a comment board, so I'm curious as to your statements.

      October 25, 2010 at 10:04 pm |
  4. Canadian

    Polygamy is messed up. What happened to that sicko child rapist Warren Jeffs. Are there any excuses for him Doing God's work?

    October 25, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  5. Joe talks

    All religions are false and these people hiding behind this false religion to practice every thing that comes to mind but you will be givng an account to God as all the examples we see in people who wanted to turn around God making stupid laws for their own pleasures. IT IS SICK AND IT IS NOT NATURAL

    October 25, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
    • Kera

      I agree with you Joe talks. All religion is are stories in a book. Just because I write a book doesn't make it true. People are stupid to base their entire life on one book. Each church picks a passage out of the book to base everything around they don't even embrace it all to the fullest. I challenge Americans to actually think for themselves and not what others tell them. I mean really open your eyes people. At what point will he stop 365 one for every day of the year?

      October 25, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  6. Bruce

    I think there's an interesting point of comparison here between the Fundamentalist Mormon's request for the government to 'stay out of our lives' regarding how marriage is defined, and the similar request coming from the gay community.

    I'm wondering what others think? If gay marriage is legalized (which I agree I think it should be) .. why not polygamist marriages? I can't think of a good reason why they shouldn't be, especially since they feel their religion defines marriage as an 'acceptably multiple' concept?

    Corrolary question: How can the state accept one religion's definition of marriage over anothers? Why would the Fundamentalist Mormon's definition be any less valid than the 'traditional' Christian definition?

    [... regarding the tax / financial implications, perhaps if one person wants to marry multiple others, the tax benefit should be fractionalized according to the number of legal spouses they have?]

    October 25, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  7. IceT

    What does the number of willing consenting spouses one has have to do with us? Why do we care? Now don't give me that "for the children's sake" line, this is about plural marriages, and approximately 50% of children are currently in plural parent families. Really, what's the real difference between a plural marriage and serial marriages (multiple marriages but 1 at a time)?

    October 25, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  8. elidude

    There are a number of websites you can go to to print out material on how to get out of a cult. You can keep it by your door to give to those nice young mormon boys when they come to visit.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  9. richunix

    Sandra,

    And what “makes” your religion more believable? On want grounds do you justify your belief to, Hindu’s, Buda and others… Just because a book that was written 1900 years ago with any proof what so ever in any God. The very same people who believed the earth is flat and we the sun revolved around us? Hell even the “Bible” states that you will have no other Gods than me. The would tend to make one believe that they are other Gods and what name’s do we give them? Yet today if anyone comes out and say’s “I’m a god”, which loony farm gets him first. In the 20th century we tend to ask for better proof than I said so. So the bible stories are just that, stories written half a century after the fact and no without any other secular history to back it up. Didn’t John have a dream and now we have the “Book of Revelation” wow…let me have a dream….let me see what I can dream up. Enough…enjoy your belief, but don’t make it the truth… Religion is a belief, not the truth and is easily taken apart for the fantasy it is.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  10. JC in Jacksonville

    If they are all adult and do not engage in the act of marrying children, and if plural marriage works for them and make thems happy, what possible difference does it make to anyone else? When are we going to stop telling other people how to live if a particular lifestyle does not harm anyone? I am a Roman Catholic, and even so it just doesn't matter to me if two men or two women who love each other want to marry, or if other people who love each other wish to be in a plural marriage. My advise for others: if it doesn't agree with your lifestyle, don't do it. Stop craming your values and lifestyle down the throat of others who are not even bother you. And Bush said they hate us for our freedom? Really? What freedom?

    October 25, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
    • Pyrix

      Polygamy doesn't scale. In a population that is roughly 50% male and 50% female, when you have some guys tying up three or more women, that leaves a huge group of disenfranchised young males who can't get laid. One of the reasons polygamy is illegal is that it sows the seeds of civil unrest among the young male demographic.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  11. Tom Barnett

    DEFINITIONS:

    1. Polygamist: A man with one too many wives.

    2. Monogamist: See definition one.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  12. Mac

    The FSM states that one shall only love multiple pastas and sauce combinations. Loving mankind is a waste for they will not satisfy the hunger of your soul. All praise the flying spaghetti monster.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  13. ChristianityNotReligion

    Valerie,
    I don't recall the word "Catholic" in the Bible anywhere. So he created Christ's church not the Catholic church. The words confirmation, penance, and eucharist aren't in there either, except for the Catholic version, which is an altered Bible. If I wanted to control my religious flock, I'd invent my own version(s) like the Book of Mormon and the "Catholic" Bible. The two previously mentioned "religions" have changed so much it reminds me of certain currrent politicians. Waffle here, waffle there.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
    • Valerie

      "Catholic" is a greek word, which means "Universal". The church is Jesus's church, and ALL are welcome.

      So sorry I hit so many nerves today! LOL!!!!

      October 25, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
    • 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 7:16 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Notquite

      You Said--

      "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."

      And.... what if I read the Book of Mormon, and ask God in prayer if its true... and... He(God) comes back to me, with a big resounding..."No.. it is *not* true."

      What should I do then...?

      October 26, 2010 at 2:17 am |
  14. thad

    As a practicing Mormon, I would just like to clarify something for the non-Mormon reader: there is no such thing as a "fundamentalist" Mormon, or any other shade of mormonism.

    A person is either a Mormon, or not a Mormon. People who practice polygamy either: (1) never were Mormon; or (2) were once Mormon, but have been excommunicated. Though once a practice of the Church, we believe in being obedient to governments and laws. The Church discontinued polygamy in the 1890's because Utah became part of the United States, and the United States Congress specifically stated that polygamy is illegal. Church members who persisted in practicing polygamy were excommunicated, and continue to be today.

    One of our Articles of Faith states, "We believe in being subjects to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law." Therefore, even if one has not (yet) been excommunicated, one cannot both be at variance with the law of the land and, in good conscience, claim to be a Latter-day Saint (the prefered reference to a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "saint" being used by us in the Bibilical sense of the word, meaning "member" or "believer").

    It may seem an insignificant distinction to a non-LDS person but, with many people knowing little about the Church, I would like to do my part to avoid any confusion or misinformation. Thank you.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
    • Michael Johnson

      Wrong. Why was it called a manifesto that ended polygamy and not a revelation from the prophet? Did Mormons in the Mormon colonies in Mexico practice polygamy, which was against Mexican laws, after the Woodruff Manifesto? Yes they did. So, LDS president Wilford Woodruff did some "lying for the lord, while he was in Washington.

      Also Mormons still believe in celestial polygamy. They believe a man can have more than one wife in heaven, but woman can only have one husband. During a temple marriage the man is given his wife's heavenly name, which he is required to use to call his wife into heaven. FYI, all women in the ceremony that day get the same name.

      You have the FLDS , The Community of Christ and a few other sects who all claim to be the real Mormon Church.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
    • paul

      Im curious to hear if you believe that Polygamy is wrong. -Or if you simply don't allow it because of the laws of the land.
      I would guess it is difficult to publicly denounce a practice that was created and practiced by both the founder (John Smith) and most prominent? (Brigham Young) Mormons. If FLDS are not Mormons because they practice polygamy, then were John Smith and Brigham Young not Mormons either?

      October 25, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @thad

      You said..(paraphrasing here), that basically, as a 'true' Mormon, that you guys.."We are obedient to Government, and its laws."

      A question, as i am curious... Should the 'laws' change in relationship to the issue of gay's being allowed marriage, and full equal rights, would you and the Mormon Church come out and 'change it's position and say, we are following our government and it's laws which say it(gay marriage) is o.k..now, so we will retract any possible hate-filled propaganda and be accepting...?

      Just curious...

      October 25, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @thad

      And... also curious as to your thoughts on Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the rest of the early founders of the Mormon religion. Would you consider the founders to be Mormons or not Mormons.

      Again, just curious...

      October 25, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
    • ST

      Thank you for your clarification. As I stated earlier: Simply put, Mormons do not practice polygamy. This is often a misconception because other religions with names similar to ours do and people may get confused. We believe in one husband, one wife, any other relationship is not considered in the Mormon religion. Just some clarification. From the churches website: "More recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley has reiterated that plural marriage is “against the law of God. Even in countries where civil or religious law allows [the practice of a man having more than one wife], the Church teaches that marriage must be monogamous and does not accept into its membership those practicing plural marriage”

      October 25, 2010 at 4:01 pm |
    • nick

      mormon, non-mormon, catholic, muslim, etc. they are all made up names for different fairy tales.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
    • paul

      ST
      so john smith and brigham young were not Mormons?
      Or is it just OK to denounce it now that it's illegal? What holds more value to you: the words of your religion's founder and most prominent followers (-words that came straight from God), or laws that constantly change with times and are decided by people who don't follow your religion?

      October 25, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
    • kkellycpa

      THe LDS church does not own the term "Mormon". In fact, they tried to get rid of it for many years in the 70's and 80's, focusing all energy on using the term "LDS". I lived through that period, as a high priest of the Church. The term "Mormon" refers to people who believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God – and there a lot of denominations that profess such.

      October 25, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  15. Kera

    It's a way for men to sleep with as many women as they want and not be in trouble for it. Look at Kody's comment when his first wife said she had jealousy issues and asked him to think about how he'd feel if she was with another man. Kody was so disgusted and just couldn't think of it and how horrible. However, he is doing the same thing sleeping with many women however, he is a hypocrite becasue he won't allow any of his "wives' to sleep or date another man. This whole culture is twisted and should be illegal and all of them should be jailed. Let the kids go to the state they'd be better off.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  16. Lizzie

    One thing is certain - this Kody guy is an asshat. Each of those women can probably only tolerate 25% of him.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  17. lol why hatin

    why is everyone so jealous of the guy gettin the b1tches? i want 4 wives

    October 25, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
    • Dawn

      No, you want 4 girlfriends.
      You don't want 4 wives!

      October 25, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Dawn

      LOL..!

      October 25, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
  18. EndTheFed

    All religion is stupid. People should be allowed to live lives that make them happy as long as they aren't taking away rights from someone else. Gay, straight, polygamist, celibate, etc....don't care...just let me express my love and I'll let you express your love.

    If anyone is ignorant enough to admit that they have life figured out because they read a book written by a liar I invite them to live their remaining days in the happiest way they now. None of us know why we are here or where we are going...religion is certainly not an answer to either of those questions. It is a deception to control the easily manipulated.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  19. les27

    That Wilde woman is right. Each to its own and let them be. If they are happy that way. Its certainly not for everyone. gay marriage should not legal also.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  20. David

    People, every religious organization is profitable. They have to be in our day and age. Otherwise, they would falter and fail. As for which organization is the most profitable...well, I'd have to say that Christianity has a stranglehold on that. Ever seen a Televangelist? They even have their own TV stations! I've never seen a Polygamy Channel. Let these people live their lives the way they wish. It is for God, Allah, The Great Mumbo Jumbo of the Congo, whoever you believe in, to judge. Not us.

    October 25, 2010 at 2:42 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.