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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. Jenny

    A liberal wrote this atricle no doubt...

    October 25, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
    • RdclCntrst

      They would have had to; the article examines a viewpoint without judgement. It allows for the possibility that someone who disagrees with the subject is not necessarily evil. Thus, it is not the type of writing that typically emanates from conservatives.

      March 15, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  2. cgoregon

    The only difference between a cult and a religion is the number of members. They are all crazy.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  3. mary

    These people go against everything that is natural.
    I watched the show and all it seems to be is one guy with 4 weak women who are allowing him to have his cake and eat it too. No man is so special that a woman should be willing to share him.
    Their reasons are absurd, it is obvious they suffer trying to accommodate the twisted religious reasoning for this.
    It's no different than laying down for a cheating husband..One that doesn't care how much it hurts..This guy is having it all and thinks the pain it causes is all part of this " wonderful religion" that allows him the right to sc**w 4 women at the same time..~!
    He's a jerk that has found a great excuse for being a adulterer..Because legally he is only married to wife #1.. The rest are his mistress's...

    October 25, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
    • simplegirlfromhawaii

      But who gave you the right to judge their lifestyle? If it is their choice, and they are working out the details on their own, how can you deem to think you know better than them? While it may not be your lifestyle choice, it is their choice... I don't understand why people make this out to be such a big deal. If you don't like what they do, DON'T WATCH THE SHOW... Seems simple enough... It is definitely not my choice in life, but if they choose to share their husband, children, and lives, more power to them....

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

      You are right ...You are a "simple girl "....
      They put it on tv and I can watch either liking it or disliking it..Thats what happens when you put your life on tv... 'duh'..
      And I watched and I thought it was demeaning and cruel that these women have accepted so little while offering so much..They are each married totally and this clown is divided 4 ways..
      Any woman that thinks this is a choice that is acceptable, is just as deluded as they are.. NO woman should be willing to accept that ANY other women accept crumbs...

      October 25, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  4. AB

    There are some errors in your doctrine above, especially when painting mainstream LDS doctrine "with the same brush" as the polygamist groups. Please do some better fact checking before posting on CNN.com - even as a blog.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  5. Mr. Mackey

    Polygamy's bad, um kay. I'm pretty sure it's bad.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
  6. jm

    Awesome! A five way! (the good kind).

    October 25, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  7. Wise One

    This guy is a total moron (not Mormon). Any guy in his right mind wouldn't WANT more than one girlfriend or wife! One is crazy enough, imagine dealing with FOUR. He's just a mamma's boy who likes having live-in maids with benefits. I'm sure he actually doinks the fat one, I mean, come......on.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  8. aroth

    Meh. It's not any crazier than any other religion.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  9. Kenny

    The world will be a better, more peaceful place without religion. More often, it brings about arguements, disagreements, hatred, prejudice, and war. It can blindly condemn the innocent; yet it can be tactfully used to justify wrongdoings of the supposedly rightous. Religion, in its purest form, has been perverted by man.

    lol I'm sick of these religious topics so I'm out...c ya hahhaa

    October 25, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  10. thad

    BTW, although governments give religions certain tax breaks (because they provide services that the government otherwise would have to provide, as well as promote overall stability that contribute to the stability of civilization), the LDS Church (the one headquartered in Salt Lake City) pays many taxes that it is not legally required to pay.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  11. Beasley

    If gay marriage is a right, then polygamy should be, too. Once the traditional one man, one woman union is open to question, then there is no reason for the government to continue to interfere in what has always been a social and religious tradition. Government regulation of that which we call "marriage" is a very recent phenomenon.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  12. thad

    I would just say again, these people are NOT Mormons. It would be a lot easier to have this conversation if we don't blur the lines and call them Mormons.

    As a practising Mormon, I think this is wrong because it is illegal.

    But, as an American, I don't see why this would be illegal as long as it is engaged in only by consenting adult humans. The same goes for gay marriage between consenting adult humans. As long as everyone has the legal capacity to consent, I don't get why other people would care. I don't seem to hear people being concerned about any other kinds of contracts; why the marriage contract?

    October 25, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
  13. -Grey-

    Fair article. Personally, I think no-victim 'crimes' should all be reconsidered...

    Now, compare and contrast with POLYAMORY. Ready? 1-2-3 GO (assuming you're up to the task)!

    October 25, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
  14. veritas

    Quit calling these arrangements marriage, quit calling these women wives. Both denote a legal standing when, in fact, they are illegal or unrecognized.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  15. dontlike

    mormons are the most delusional group of people you will ever meet.
    they believe in their own fantasies so deeply that they think they have the right to CONVERT THE DEAD INTO THEIR DELUSION. they were converting holocaust victims until the jewish community found out and asked them to stop.
    they do it at night inside of that temple that no one is allowed to get in but them. they have a disproportionate sense of self. they believe they are THE ONLY ONES THAT KNOW "THE TRUTH". oh my!

    October 25, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
    • ST

      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 3:57 pm |
    • mary

      Every time I have ever had a mormon friend or boyfriend..I find myself hitting a brick wall with their families..They are so close it is sickening..So pre occupied with each other there is little room to even breathe..
      I say, true practicing mormons are obnoxious in their clannish family oriented lives.. And kind of un neighborly to anyone on the outside.. If you don't plan on marrying one and having their children....RUN away......You can't get close and they will never understand what your problem is..~!!!

      October 25, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @mary

      Yep... dated a mormon girl in high school. I think they kept me around for 'awhile' as I was a 'blonde hair-blue eyed.'

      October 26, 2010 at 2:27 am |
    • Frank

      "I think they kept me around for 'awhile' as I was a 'blonde hair-blue eyed.'"

      What were they, Aryan race fanatics?

      October 26, 2010 at 2:31 am |
  16. Nondual

    Zeus is God. Read the Iliad and the Odyssey.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
    • Reality

      Only for the new members out there:

      Mormonism???

      A business/religious cult based on Joseph Smith's hallucinations including the vision of polygamy which has bought respectability with a $30 billion business empire, the BYU "mission matured" football team and a great choir.

      From: lds-mormon.com/time.shtml

      "The first divergence between Mormon economics and that of other denominations is the t-ithe. Most churches take in the greater part of their income through donations. Very few, however, impose a compulsory 10% income tax on their members. Ti-thes are collected locally, with much of the money pas-sed on informally to local lay leaders at Sunday services. "By Monday," says Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone, an independent Mormon magazine, the church authorities in Salt Lake City "know every cent that's been collected and have made sure the money is deposited in banks." There is a lot to deposit. Last year $5.2 billion in t-ithes flowed into Salt Lake City, $4.9 billion of which came from American Mormons."

      "The Mormons are stewards of a different str-ipe. Their charitable spending and temple building are prodi-gious. But where other churches spend most of what they receive in a given year, the Latter-day Saints employ vast amounts of money in investments that TIME estimates to be at least $6 billion strong. Even more unusual, most of this money is not in bonds or stock in other peoples' companies but is invested directly in church-owned, for-profit concerns, the largest of which are in agribusiness, media, insurance, travel and real estate. Deseret Management Corp., the company through which the church holds almost all its commercial as-sets, is one of the largest owners of farm and ranchland in the country, including 49 for-profit parcels in addition to the Deseret Ranch. Besides the Bonneville International chain and Beneficial Life, the church owns a 52% holding in ZCMI, Utah's largest department-store chain.
      All told, TIME estimates that the Latter-day Saints farmland and financial investments total some $11 billion, and that the church's nont-ithe income from its investments exceeds $600 million. "

      Mormons believe their President is a prophet who receives new revelations from God. These can supplant older revelations, as in the case of the church's historically most controversial doctrine: Smith himself received God's sanctioning of pol-ygamy in 1831, but 49 years later, the church's President announced its recision. Similarly, an explicit policy barring black men from holding even the lowest church offices was overturned by a new revelation in 1978, opening the way to huge missionary activity in Africa and Brazil. "

      The leaders of the Mormon Church/"Cult" are not paid is often heard from the Mormon peons which somehow makes these leaders good men. Actually, they are/were well paid via being executives of the large Mormon-owned businesses getting large salaries and severance and retirement packages.

      e.g. http://207.224.220.202/excerpts/hier2.htm

      "The Quorum of Twelve's president Ezra Taft Benson was a director of Beneficial Life Insurance Co. Apostle Howard W. Hunter was president of the Polynesian Cultural Center (Hawaii), and director of Beneficial Life Insurance Co., of Continental Western Life Insurance Co., of Deseret Federal Savings and Loan, of First Security Bank of Utah, of First Security Corp., of Heber J. Grant & Co., of PHA Life Insurance Co. (Oregon), of Watson Land Co. (Los Angeles), and of Western American Life Insurance Co. Apostle Thomas S. Monson was president and chairman of the board of Deseret News Publishing Co., vice-president of LDS Social Services and of Newspaper Agency Corp, and director of Beneficial Life Insurance Co., of Commercial Security Bank, of Commercial Security Bankcorporation, of Continental Western Life Insurance Co. (Iowa), of Deseret Management Corp., of IHC Hospitals, Inc., of Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Co., of Murdock Travel, of PHA Life Insurance Co. (Oregon), of Pioneer Memorial Theater, and of Western American Life Insurance Co. Apostle Boyd K. Packer was chairman of the board of Utah Home Fire Insurance Co., while also director of Murdock Travel and of Zion's First National Bank. Apostle Marvin J. Ashton was president of Deseret Book Co., chairman of the board of ZCMI, and director of Beneficial Development Co., of First Security Bank of Utah, of First Security Corporation, of Laie Resorts (Hawaii), and of Zion's Securities Corporation. Apostle L. Tom Perry was director of American Stores Co. (which operated Skaggs Drugs and Alpha Beta supermarkets), of ZCMI, of Zion's First National Bank, and of Jewel Companies, Inc. (Chicago), and trustee of LDS Social Services and of Nauvoo Restoration. Apostle David B. Haight was director of Bonneville International Corporation, of Deseret Management Corporation, of First Security Bank of Utah, of First Security Corporation, and of Valtek, Inc., while also a trustee of Deseret Management Corporation Foundation. Apostle James E. Faust was vice-president of Deseret News Publishing Co., director of Commercial Security Bank, and of Commercial Security Bank Corporation, while also a trustee of Ballet West and of LDS Social Services. Apostle Neal A. Maxwell was director of Mountain Fuel Resources, Inc., of Mountain Fuel Supply Co., and of Deseret News Publishing Co. Apostle Russell M. Nelson was director of Zion's First National Bank. Apostle Dallin H. Oaks was chairman of the Public Broadcasting System (national), while also director of O.C. Tanner Jewelry Co. and of Union Pacific Railroad."

      Bottom line: Mormonism is a business cult using religion as a front and charitable donations and volunteer work to advertise said business.

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

      @Reality

      Hey Pal..!

      This post was o.k... however.... We need 'more' information than just a 'couple of lines' on the subject. LOL..!!! 🙂

      Great info. Reality....!!!

      Peace...

      October 26, 2010 at 8:40 pm |
  17. gabluefox

    I know where Joesph Smith got the idea for plural marriages. It was at the beginning of the Christian Bible due to help increase the population of the world. It then said for the marriages as such to stop in the same book. Joesph just wanted to keep living on the one principal he read about and stopped reading.
    The old saying is that women want one man to satisfy all of her needs and men want more than one woman to satisfy his One need.
    Guess that is where we get our polygimist today! LOL

    October 25, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  18. mark

    This is not about marriage, it is about having as MANY Morman children as possible. Same with Catholics, Episcopalians (? no spell check) and others that want to have as many children as possible to make more money for their respective cults.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
    • cmf

      I laughed so hard at what you wrote!! You think having kids makes you RICH? Ok. you really are nutty! I should know. I have 5! lololol Yup, I'm also mormon! And you are FUNNY!

      July 14, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  19. cgoregon

    This BS about religion is nothing but an elaborate cover for pedophiles. These folks need to be tossed in jail for raping underage girls and passing them around like they are property, which is what they are in this"religion".

    October 25, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  20. Cherrymama

    So what if one of the women decided to bring home another husband? If it is Ok for a man to have many wives, why can't a woman have multiple husbands?

    October 25, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
    • cmf

      Not a bad idea!

      July 14, 2011 at 12:11 am |
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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.