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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. Jerry

    This guy got a great scam, he gets to screw 4 woman, and they are all brain washed thinking it's a religious thing, Could this be ignorance at it's finest..?

    October 25, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
  2. Saclivin

    To each their own. The law will only recognize one marriage, but if these people want to live this way, call it marriages then go for it. The kids are not negleted, the women agree to this arrangment, so who is it hurting? As with any situation there is a good side and a bad side. I watch the show out of pure fascination and have recieved a education in regards to this, which helps me put my judgements and prejudice in check. Religious beliefs or not...if they choose to live this way fine. If the man is repeatedly getting marriage licenses through the state then maybe the state needs to put stricter requirements on gettng married, proof of not being married etc...It is so easy to get a marriage license in most if not all states.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
  3. R

    This guy is good.....the ultmate salesman! He's driving around in a new sports car selling himself, and his wives are driving around in old suv's tending to the kids and cooking. He needs to post his resume on-line, he would probably get alot of good job offers because it sounds like he can sell anything. Good luck with the harem.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:10 pm |
  4. lostinthedesert

    This guy has four wives and I can't even find one girlfriend. What a rip.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:10 pm |
  5. Janet Wambold-Buraik

    Get government out of people's lives!!!!!
    As long as they are all happy and not collecting welfare who's business is it who marries whom? Look at all the people who cheat the system denying they are married and collecting welfare for their "wives" and children that are not claimed.

    I support the Brown family 100%. I would not mind living like that.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:09 pm |
  6. Mark Yelka

    As a former Mormon and missionary, here's the short summary: Polygamy is an eternal, God law. Mormons believe in respecting human law, too. If human law is changed to allow polygamy, it will be practiced again. In the meantime, one can marry sequentially. If one wife dies and you're sealed in the Temple to another wife, you're now practicing polygamy (even though you'll only have both women at your side simultaneously in the afterlife).

    October 25, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  7. Holly in Houston

    I could't care less about the 5 adults is this. My concern is for the children and taxpayers. When Mr Brown dies, and he will one day, only the one legal wife and their children will be able to collect ss surviviors benefits. What becomes of all the other children? Welfare and medicaid? I wonder if Mr Brown has a large insurance policy for his other kids? Or if he has saved money for their education? His reponse to similar questions has been "they will work it out themselves". He sounds like a little kid who's playing house with 4 women for short term gratification, but doesn't consider or acknowledge the long term affects on the children or on society. He takes no responsilbility for their futures. He's a very, very, very selfish man, imo.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
  8. bailoutsos

    What ever happened to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?"

    October 25, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
  9. Aaron

    No offense but would any man want more than one woman yelling at hem to take out the trash?

    October 25, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
  10. Uneducated Mormon's

    These women are PATHETIC. What a dream come true for the husband and how brain washed these wives are to think this is acceptable. Wives you are not 2nd class ciitzens, you are not garbage. Stop living like you are.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
    • Bekah

      I'd say you're the one treating them like garbage. They're happy, but b/c it doesn't fit what YOU decide is happiness, they're "pathetic". Real freeing of you.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  11. Georgiana Bevacqua

    How is this guy any different from someone who is married and has 3 ro 4 baby mama's on the side?

    October 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
  12. MB

    One can argue religion right or wrong until the end of time! The issue here is the law. Polygamy is illegal, pure and simple. Whether or not gays have the right to marry or not is immaterial. If the law changes it will still state ONE PERSON to ONE PERSON! Again, polygamy is illegal. What bothers me is why CNN has this as an important check it out JUST BECAUSE THIS GUY WITH HIS GALS HAVE A REALITY TV SHOW! REALLY?! People! AND WHY DOES he have a reality TV show? We should NOT watch this show! AND someone should complain to the FCC for allowing them to put illegal activities on the air as a "show"! WE ARE BETTER THEN THIS! WHERE is the SANITY in all of this. GET THIS GUY OFF THE AIR!

    October 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm |
  13. Bekah

    I'm poly, so obviously I believe in poly marriages. That being said, what I have an issue with is that these people are a drain on the welfare system. There are four of us in our group and we all support ourselves, thank you. There's three jobs between the four of us and we don't plan on having children until we have enough money in savings to do that. You know, basic relationship facts that are in ANY relationship, mono or poly.

    Being poly doesn't mean you can have a million kids you can't pay for, but the same applies for those in monogomous marriages that have 15 kids.

    Now, if you want to argue whether poly is OK, well that's your own problem. What adults do with their lives is no concern to me. We don't plan to break any laws here. Our marriages will be ceremonial, not legal, and that's our business. However, you have no right to make my relationships illegal when I've done nothing to hurt you. You don't get why poly works? Well, I don't get how mono works. Guess we're on the same level.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
    • equilibrium

      @Bekah. I'm sure most wouldn't have problem if the "playing" field were equal.
      Why can't women have more than one husband/brother husband? Why are the polygamist men so opposed to this? I don't understand the double standard. And I don't understand why more Mormon women do not ask this question. When Mormon men allow their women the same rights, I will view polygamy as an a fair and viable lifestyle.

      October 25, 2010 at 8:15 pm |
    • Bekah

      I don't think it's fair that the playing field isn't equal. In my own arrangement, there's two men and two women. But that isn't my place to tell them what's right and what isn't. It's their culture, their religion. We all see things differently, so why can't they?

      October 25, 2010 at 11:47 pm |
  14. lawcat2013

    male polygamists are ugly

    October 25, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  15. Rachel

    I think Tiger and Jessie should take up this religion, it seems sutied for men who can't be faithful to one women,
    It is good for him, but why on earth does a woman go along with it, I just can't figure that one out! Maybe there
    is a shortage of men in Utah.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  16. Juliax

    Right Pearl and insecure women with low self-esteem put up with it. These women even feel empowered by agreeing to the man openly cheating – how confused is that?

    October 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  17. shecallsmepeanut

    The reason that they weren't allowed to view the marriage is because of the Morman religion. You aren't allowed to be in the church while the marriage ceremony goes on unless you are recognized by the church or baptised by the church. I believe. I can see that these people aren't hurting anyone. I've watched the show and saw that they allow their children to be anything they want. They aren't forcing them to believe the same things that their parents or practice the same religion their parents do. The only thing these people want is for a happy and healthy family. The one daughter is even talking about joining the military. Not all polyamous familes are the same. The ones who have child brides and are forced into marriage paint a bad pictures for those who dont. Every one of these woman entered their marriages as consenting adults. They knew what they were getting themselves into. Most of them have a backround of polygamous relationships or family members who practice it. Don't judge them because others give them a bad name. They aren't hurting anyone and it is isn't like he is legally married to all 4 of them. He is only legally married to one and bound to the others.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  18. ST

    Being a mormon myself, you cannot be mormon AND be polygamous. Simply put No we 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 3:52 pm |
  19. ST

    Being a mormon myself, you cannot be mormon AND be polygamous. Simply put No we 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 3:51 pm |
    • Salt Lake Mark

      How can you be so certain that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were "prophets" and supported/participated in Polygamy when a latter prophet More recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley has reiterated that plural marriage is “against the law of God." It seems complete contradictory that one of your prophets says one thing then others do the opposite. Also, as someone who grew up Mormon I know that Mormons believe in and participate in plural temple sealings. When a male in the church remarries he is not required to renounce the sealing to his previous wife and is able to be sealed to an additional wife. These sealings are equivalent to marriages so I dont see how you can possibly say that Mormons dont believe in Polygamy, Are those wives not sealed to you in the afterlife that you believe in?!? Which one are you no longer sealed/married to after you all die?

      October 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • Peace2All

      I think we have a 'ringer' here in @Salt Lake Mark...!!!

      October 26, 2010 at 2:31 am |
  20. simplegirlfromhawaii

    My biggest problem is: WHO CARES? If it's working for this family, and others: WONDERFUL... if it's not your choice: WONDERFUL... but what gives others the right to judge someone else's choices as right or wrong if they are not harming others in the process? This is the United States of America, land of the free, last I checked... I don't force my personal beliefs on anyone else, nor do I expect others to force their personal beliefs on me... This family is not harming anyone in living their life following THEIR beliefs... Who gives ANYONE else the right to say they're WRONG because they choose to share their lives as they do? Don't get me wrong, I'm a one man/one woman marriage kinda gal, and that's what works for me... But I don't think that my choice is right or wrong for anyone else but ME! I would have a problem if Brown's tried to force their lifestyle on me... But they're not... they're sharing how they live their life with others, and if you like it you like it if you don't you don't... NO BIG DEAL... Seriously people, if it's not for you, move on and WATCH ANOTHER SHOW... no one is FORCING you to tune in....

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

      What about the children? This is not how children are raised- like the dang charles manson clan-whats next... children breeding with the father, ? but thats ok too.... right, bc we can turn our heads....just like breaking any of the other laws, just look away, is that your real solution?!?!

      October 25, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • simplegirlfromhawaii

      Is that your personal opinion on what happens in the home or do you know for a fact that the Brown family children are expected to follow in the polygamous lifestyle? I distinctly remember seeing one episode where one of the older daughters said that they do not intend to follow that lifestyle because she believes in one man/one woman relationships... Hrm... doesn't seem to me that the Brown family is "forcing" their children into anything... they, as a family, seem more tolerant of others than others are of them maybe?? Food for thought....

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

      We all got "the right to judge" when they put their lives on tv to make a buck off people tuning in to watch... 'duh'.......

      October 25, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
    • simplegirlfromhawaii

      I think I'm too simple in my thinking that; if you don't like it, DON'T WATCH... if you don't agree with it, DON'T CHOOSE TO LIVE YOUR LIFE THAT WAY... Seems like a very simplistic way of thinking, but I have personal opinions on EVERYTHING, but I don't force others to live their lives according to my moral fiber... i don't judge people for living their lives the way that makes them happy... And i believe that IGNORANCE is the basis for INTOLERANCE... people are famous for HATING things that they don't understand... again, if it MORALLY offends you, don't read stories on things that you don't agree with, don't watch shows that portray choices that you don't agree with... The Brown family seems close knit, almost like extended family living under one roof... the kids work together and get along much better than a lot of 'mainstream' households i see....

      October 25, 2010 at 5:35 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.