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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. Karen Saucedo

    This is just another twist on the same old "religious life" tale. It is the MAN who rules. It is the MAN who benefits. Note most of the wives bring home paychecks and one does all the childcare. The husband can, presumably have companionship every night while the wives take turns. The first wife should never have let him bring home #2. The fact that she did shows she is weak and lacking in self confidence. I'd assume that were we to separate these women and question them individually, we would NOT see the strength they appear to possess in the group, but rather some insecure women with a number of complaints.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • Flora

      I have to agree. If my (hypothetical) husband EVER cam home and said to my face "Hey honey, I've been dating this other chick for a while, I thought it would be really great if I married her too!"... The police would have to convict me on WHAT'S LEFT of him.

      October 25, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
  2. Jack

    Wait, there are Christian fundamentalists, too?!?!?!?!?!
    ...Mind = blown...

    October 25, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  3. mooreman

    some errors: Brigham Young has 29 wives 56 children, Joseph had multiple wives, no verifiable children, as far as my research has been. When Joseph Smith III came to Utah he was introduced to all of Joseph's plural wives. He did not like the thought of his dad having multiple wives, but the truth is the truth.
    Jacob in the Bible had 4 wives along with David, Solomon, Abraham, Moses having multiple wives and speaking for God as His prophet. Who are we to tell God he can not do the same in our day and time??? The Law now states it is illegal, Edmunds/ Tucker act, and as of 1890 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints also does not practice it. All who do are either excommunicated members or have never been members.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
  4. quidproquo

    No one has mentioned what the benefits to the women are in a polygamist relationship as if the only benefits are to the man. In ny opinion the benefits are great, and no, I'm not in a polygamist relationship. All the tasks that are on the womans shoulders in a traditional marriage can be shared among the wives. One or more can work and earn a living outside the home secure in the knowledge that the children are well cared for by another sisterwife. The one who can't hates to do laundry or cook etc doesn't have to, because someone else is there to pick up the slack. Imagine having all of that support on a daily basis. If you get sick, you can actually lay in bed and get well without feeling like you HAVE to get up and do for your family because no one else can/will. Everyone's strengths are utilized for the good of the family and no one's weaknesses would be of severe detriment to the family good. I think that it would be wonderful to have that much female support as a woman. Of course, the biggest challenge is in choosing the right combination of people so that personalities don't clash too greatly and hopefully that choice is not left entirely up to the man. I am leery of the religious aspect to many of these types of marriages, but I think a secular polygamist marriage would in many ways be ideal.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
  5. Mormon

    Joseph Smith was given direction by the Lord to build up the church. The fastest was was plural marraige. It worked. Utah became a state and the church was strong enough to stand up to the persecution of the world. After all, being the only true church, you must expect satan to attack it full force. Think about it. Christianity was flourishing in the early 1800's. When the only true priesthood authority of Jesus Christ was restored, Satan did everything to discourage it. He knew that the truth had been restored and it was the beginning of the end for him. Did you ever hear of the U.S. government persecuting any other Christian religions? NO! Because they didn't have the whole truth or the authority of Jesus Christ. But when it was restored to the earth, Satan went nuts – through those he had control over.

    With all the persecution that the church has endured, it has endured. It has grown. It is now the fastest growing Christian religion in the world. It is the truth and the light.

    The problem with the fundamentalists is they are stuck in the past. Joseph Smith was a prophet. Brigham Young was a prophet. Thomas S. Monson is a prophet today. We MUST have modern prophecy. God would not talk to us and then go away. The church did not die with Joseph Smiths Martyrdom. It lives and is guided by prophets. We must heed the words of every prophet for the Lord will not lead his people astray and will not allow others to do so.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the true church of Christ on the earth today. If you fell behind and didn't listen to modern day prophecy, that's OK. Repentence is a glorious act and the church will always welcome you back with open arms.

    There is a reason for everything. There is a reason that Islam exists. There is a reason that Christianity exists. There is a reason that they conflict. If you don't know why then you don't understand why religion exists. Please study it ALL and understand it. When you do, you will either be a Mormon or Islamic or Buddhist or something. But you will understand why.

    Everybody seems to have bits and pieces of the truth. "The words of men, mingled with scripture". No man on this earth has the authority to interpret scripture except a prophet of God. I'll listen to him and him alone.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
    • lawcat2013

      no but thanks

      October 25, 2010 at 8:10 pm |
    • R.

      @Mormon
      You said, "Joseph Smith was given direction by the Lord to build up the church. The fastest was was plural marraige."

      It's always easy to spot a Mormon. They are the ones that regurgitate the lies given to them by their "church" [cult] and have no critical thinking skills. Think about. Do you really believe the lies your "church" teaches that polygamy was necessary? Five women with one husband can not have any more children than the same five women with five husbands. Being polygamous does not magically allow a woman to have a kid in 2 months instead of 9, or to put off menopause. Polygamy does not allow women to have more children than they would have with one husband. In fact, those five women with one husband will have FEWER children with one husband than they would with one husband EACH, as they don't sleep with him as often. Look at the statistics (or your own polygamous ancestry if you are a multi-generation Mormon), and see how most polygamous wives had one, two, maybe 4 or 5 kids at the most. Meanwhile, women marred to one man in the same era had on an average about 8-10 kids.

      And, before you spout another lie your "church" [cult] feeds you, there was NOT a shortage of men that made polygamy necessary. Look at the statistics put out by the U. S. census bureau. (I'll assume you are intelligent enough to find it.) There were MORE men in EVERY census from 1850 on than there were women. Polygamy actually SLOWED DOWN the growth that UT could have had (which is a GOOD thing) if each woman was married to one man and had 8-10 kids, instead of the 3-5 she had with a polygamous husband.

      The ONLY reason for polygamy was that Joseph Smith got caught with his pants down by Emma, and so made up the parts in your Doctrine and Covenants (I assume as a "good" Mormon you've actually read it???) that commanded her to accept polygamy or be damned.

      Wake up!!! Most "facts" [lies] the LDS Church feeds its members can be as easily disproved as this one that somehow polygamy allows a woman to have more children and reproduce faster. Get some critical thinking. Unfortunately polygamy allowed a "gullible gene" and "non-critical thinking gene" to be bred into the early Mormons and it has been passed on to many of their descendants.

      October 25, 2010 at 10:14 pm |
  6. David

    If gays can marry then why not multiple people marrying? Im not sure where anyone can really draw a line. For that matter why can't siblings marry? two men cannot reproduce and as long as two siblings promise not to procreate or something they should be allowed to marry. Or why not multiple siblings marry each other?
    Also why cant people marry animals? or multiple animals?

    October 25, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
  7. squeak

    If "sister" wives are ok, wht not "brother" husbands? Seems as long as it benefits the one who thinks of it, it is ok....

    October 25, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
    • Tetbury

      Interesting – In one of the episodes, Kody said he would not be happy if one of the wives took on another husband.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  8. vel

    all polygamy shows is a greedy little man who wants control and women who are kept too ignorant to know any better. Fear and greed run all religions. And indeed, the Christians pointing fingers at the LDS and the fundamentalists are hypocrites. You also do bizaare things because you think some invisible being has told you to. As for Hitler being a Christian, he was a self-professed Catholic and about as "good" a Christian as any since none of you actually care to follow what JC said.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:26 pm |
  9. Laura

    I wayched a few episodes to see what this is all about – this guy is just a spoiled litle man! Did you see his reaction when he was asked by wife #1 how he would feel if she was steppin' out with another guy? He couldn't even handle the concept, by his own admission! Total hypocrite and spoiled brat. And the only explantion I have for the women is that they have such a poor self-image and so desperate for any kind of (financial) security, they opt in and stay in!

    October 25, 2010 at 4:26 pm |
    • Tetbury

      Spoiled? but it's the women who are allowing it. He's like a kid in the candy jar and being told he can have as much as he wants. . Maybe there is self-esteem issues but what I saw was women wanting the female companionship.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  10. confused

    so if the 7th commandment is "Thou shalt not commit adultery" how does that apply here? Maybe its there way of getting around the "Living in sin". The ten commandments does apply to them ... doesn't it?

    October 25, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
  11. Dee

    I am not going to get into the religious aspect of this show, I am only going to discuss the show. For me, it was like a train wreck...you did not want to look but you just couldn't help yourself. I agree with another poster.that Kody is one self centered a$$. Everything was about him. He has the fancy car, not the wives. I was courious as to how he could support so many wives. I realize all but 1 wife works but still...that's a lot of mouths to feed, medical bills, dentist, etc. If only the first wife is recognized as "legal", how did he pay the medical bills for the other births? I picked up on the fact that the majority were home births, but there were other medical bills to consider. This last child from wife #2 or #3 was in the hospital...how was that paid? What does he do for a living that can allow him so much time off? Vacations with individual wives, etc. Plus the dinners out...dating and special occasions...not cheap. I also picked up on the comments when he and first wife returned from their anniversary vacation and the daughter was so glad to see her Mother. He was put off because she was not as happy to see him. Wife #1 told him it was because the daughter was not around him as much as she was her. Apparently none of the children have much one on one time with him. Wife #1 was my favorite. She was more open and honest than anyone else on the show and she seemed to stand up to him more. To each his own, but to me Kody way only feeding his huge ego.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
  12. Shannon

    I think it's important to make one thing clear: Mormons–the mainstream variety–believe that in the highest level of heaven (the Celestial Kingdom) plural marriage is practiced. As a Mormon I believed that if my husband and I were righteous enough, we'd become gods and with additional wives, we'd have oodles of spirit children together. This is doctrine. Many Mormons want to distance themselves from polygamy, but it's a fundamental part of the belief system.

    Furthermore, you can find the names and ages (young as 14) of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young's wives on lds.org. Joseph Smith married women who were already married. He married sisters. Brigham Young later married many of Joseph Smith's widows. Plural marriage and the history of Mormonism are fascinating. I highly recommend reading "In Sacred Loneliness".

    October 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
    • KinNYC

      Now that is scary.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  13. KinNYC

    Each religion practised polygamy. In the bible, the father of Joseph and his 11 brothers and 1 sister, Jacob had two wives and two concubines. The Koran teaches you can marry additional wives especially orphans and widows. In those days when women could not fend for themselves it might have been necessary. HOWEVER we are in the 21 century and are now, supposedly, equal. Again I say "anyone looking for a husband obviously has never had one". Maybe these polygamists figure they can share the burden of housework and only have to put up with the guy twice a week. To be perfectly honest I don't care who you sleep with or how many wives you have as long as you can support them and your offspring.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
    • Shannon

      The god of the Old Testament never condoned polygamy; he merely tolerated it. FYI. 🙂

      October 25, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
  14. cara

    anyway?

    October 25, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
  15. juniper

    Aside from all the killing and culture, how is this different from the Taliban? Its people like this who give religion a bad name.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  16. Joseph

    Meh, I'm in a triad relationship with two women. I'm also an atheist. We get along wonderfully. Religion isn't required for love.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
    • Joseph

      It works, I should add, because they're bi, and I'm straight, so there's no division of attention; nobody ever feels left out of any element of the relationship. The biggest argument is which one is going to go off birth control first, as each wants one child and two children sounds perfect to me.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  17. wranglerx

    http://www.gotquestions.org

    October 25, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  18. Angel

    The one thing that concerns me are the children. I did watch two episodes and was very disturbed. At one point the "first" daughter showed an interest in becoming a doctor. At this point she was going to public school. She hated it and wanted to go back to the polygimist school. Her father explained to her that if she continued at the polygimist school she would have to have a GED to be accepted into college. That is sad. The other issue I have is with the third wife. She explained that she always wanted to be a third wife. She wanted to be a third wife? So I guess she just waited around until all the husbands married their first two and she got to choose among them? So conflicted.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  19. Edward

    I want to give my take on this topic, in which i'll briefly discuss in a bullet format:

    The Roman Church – involved in Inquisition and Crusades. The Inquisition & the treatment of Jews and others are not justifiable by any means. Yet who started them. Here's a hint... they started not too long after the rise of Mohommad and his Jihad... think "Ottoman" and Co. This leads me to:

    Islam – We already know about the terrorism done by Muslim radicals. Yet, look at life in typically "Moderate" Muslim countries. What would happen if you shared your religion, be it Christianity, Hindu, or Buddhism? Do you think you'll be free to talk for very long? And what if you were able to convert someone away from Islam, how do you think the family would deal with that person, especially if that person was female? Yet do you hear of any violence against American Muslims sharing their faith? Are there honor killings going on here?

    Athiesm – Yet even if you add up all the murders from both the Roman Church (of the past) and the Muslim world, you will not come close to those perpetrated by Socialists and Communists in the 20th century. Hitler (who wanted to kill Christians after he did in the Jews, Poles and others) killed 12 million. Stalin killed about 35 million, Chairman Mao killed about 60 million. Add in Pol Pot, and other lesser madmen, and you have a huge cache of victims of Athiestic mahem. Am i saying all athiests kill? No, but you have quite a disparity betw "Religion" and non-religion in this catagory.

    Do i not have a point?

    October 25, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
    • ThinkRationally

      Do you have a point? What is it? You start your heading with Atheism, then talk about socialism and communism as if they were somehow related–they are not, but you seem to be trying to grind a religious axe and political axe at the same time (which seems rather common).

      Has anyone ever done something horrendous and declared that they did it "in the name of atheism"? I can't recall any. Religion, on the other hand, has been behind, and continues to be behind, organized, orchestrated atrocities. I say organized because this is important. I can point to one person who does something in the name of God, but that doesn't indicate anything bad about religion–it indicates something bad about that person. Just as the monstrous people you mention, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, whoever, are not indicative of any leaning, religious or otherwise–they're just misguided individuals.

      When religion is used to gather people into a like mind to do something awful, that can be attributed to religion. Has atheism ever been used this way? Socialism and communism do not count,although they have no inherent evilness to them either. Can you point me to some horrible event that resulted because of organized atheism, and bonus points if it was proclaimed as such?

      Atheism is just a non-belief in a higher power. That's it. Nothing more. It's followers don't necessarily share anything else in common (including socialist or communist leanings). They are all individuals, some are maybe imbalanced, but many are sane, rational, kind, gentle people.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
    • John

      @Think, They were atheist. Just because they didn't say "hello I'm atheist" doesn't mean they weren't. Communism (especially Marxism) is associated with atheism. Your comment discredited.

      October 25, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
  20. wranglerx

    For genuine and interested seekers, check out http://www.gotquestions.org

    October 25, 2010 at 4:16 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.