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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. Mary

    If all of this is how some feel life should be, then why can't I have more than one husband?

    October 25, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
    • Sari in Vegas

      Go for it 😀 I have two male LTRs with no drama..

      October 25, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
  2. Sari in Vegas

    BTW, Polyamory is completely different, so please don't confuse the two. Both have the same prefix, and involve multiple relationships. But polyamory doesn't have the religious component, is generally egalitarian, and is strictly between consenting adults- no creepy child bride stuff.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
  3. george in texas

    christianity and islam don't understand well the real life right before their eyes. read its views on earth and sun etc. which is terribly flawed. how can it understand well the after-life which isn't in front of them? mideast religions waste too much human energy and capital.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
  4. Charon

    It is very sad that these people are still linked to Mormons. The LDS church does not allow it therefore they would not be apart of the church possibly even excommunicated. I am not even a member of their church and I know this. The media needs to do some research on religion before they submit things.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
  5. ybs

    The media is preparing the public for Romney in 2012! He pushed & passed universal healthcare in MA - which is the right thing to do! MA provides much more coverage and it's not in bankruptcy! Like HI, MA is doing well.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
  6. christ

    This is called adultry. Nothingelse. Jesus if He comes to eartth today, He wil send them to Hell

    October 25, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
    • sounder

      Adultery? If they're married, it's not adultery. Marriage can be viewed in the eyes of the law or the eyes of God "what God has put together, let no man put assunder".

      Furthermore, many leaders in the Bible had multiple wives, and they are in heaven (Jacob, King David, King Soloman, etc).

      Additionally, the Bible states, 'Judge not less ye be judged' and 'take the plank out of your eye before taking the splinter from your brother's eye'.

      October 25, 2010 at 5:12 pm |
  7. sarah

    If it works for them great but personally i am to jealous of a person to allow my man to be with another woman or 3 more. I don't even like the fact that by guy has an ex-wife that he still has to communicate with. It's not something that would work in our home.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
  8. george in texas

    is the man handle it having to fill up gas tank of every wife's car?

    October 25, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
    • Smite Me

      Nah, he spends his spare time cleaning hair (from 21 people!) out of the drains...

      October 25, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
  9. tru

    simply disgusting. I am neither a christian or muslim but what right do christians have in making fun of muslims and their books when so much trash exists in their houses only difference being that other religions are open about their practices and even accept their mistakes ..talk about double standards.

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

    Really Christion? Sounds to me like all religeons are nothing more than a myth, fantasy. You have books written like what, 100 plus years after the fact and this is the WORD? According to who? Some false God that man made up to trick the weak and feeble minded, nothing more, nothing less. ALL religeons are nothing more than cults. The blind leading the blind. Yeah, let's be Catholic and leave our young son with the priest cause he will NEVER do anything against God's word, right? LMAO The weak need something to make their lives seem better. Would have to imagine most of the Catholic men would LOVE to divorce their wives but cant. Now THAT is a stupid religeon. Baa Baa black sheep have you any wool? LOL

    October 25, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  11. Margy

    This "religion" is just a glorified excuse for 'some" guys to screw several different women! These women are brainwashed and the men are trash, just saying:)

    October 25, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  12. michelle

    I am clicking on this story for the last time to urge people not give this man attention. Let him fade into reality show history without the fame and fortune that he (and his wives) are clearly seeking.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:53 pm |
  13. barry

    There's a fundamental flaw in Mormon thinking: There WON'T be any "marriage" relationships in Heaven! Where in the world are these people getting that???

    "Marriage" is a PHYSICAL philosophy that doesn't go beyond the physical rhealm. Our souls will NOT be married to another "earthly soul" when we get to Heaven! We will all be transformed into brothers and sisters all singing God's praises for eternity.

    But our earthly "marriages" DO NOT and WILL NOT exist in Heaven. Because they're very nature are INFERIOR to the spiritual relationship we'll share with God and everyone else up there!

    October 25, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @barry

      Apparently... now... 'you' have the 'truth.'

      So many differing 'opinions.' How does one 'really' know *the* truth...?

      October 26, 2010 at 2:35 am |
    • Frank

      Barry, you have a good point. I don't know how the Mormons rationalize polygamy when Christ quite clearly says in the Gospels that there will be no marriage in heaven.

      October 26, 2010 at 2:41 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Frank

      While that may be 'accurate' as to what jesus says about marriage, etc.... I am speaking to the *inference* that @barry, for sure and it looks like you..... That is in terms of 'absolute truth' in terms of what 'really' happens after death.

      ALL of it is mere speculation.

      Peace...

      October 26, 2010 at 8:44 pm |
    • Frank

      And you either agree or you don't, as with everything else. I'm just wondering how the Mormons get around it.

      October 26, 2010 at 11:53 pm |
  14. george in texas

    i still think mitt romney is the best choice for president. it would be nice to have several first ladies.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  15. M Smith

    This guy is a phoney. And his wives (1 real- w/marriage license, and the other via fake non-'marriages' are lemmings. Who is paying for all of pregnancies and kid's expenses? I'd bet they ARE ALL on various forms of public support (welfare). What does this guy do for a living? I'd bet he DOES NIT support these kids and households. And I could not care less about his religion or his beliefs and perceptions. He is NOT supporting these kids of the famileres. He is not much more than a social parasite.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
  16. InMyOpinion

    Shame on TLC for airing a show like this – what's next a show on pedaphiles?

    October 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  17. Do what now?

    The question is 'why'. Why should anyone care?

    October 25, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  18. InMyOpinion

    They should be investigated for possible welfare fraud. My guess is children from the "spiritual Marriages" are being supported by tax payers as most of the offspring from these non-legal marriages are.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  19. Linda Wallace

    TLC is exploiting and contributing to further abuse of the children who are emotionally damaged by this sick drama. The adults are so cavalier and completely disregard the impact of their behavior on the children, who have no choice. What messages are they sending when the husband decides his current wife is (wives are) no longer good enough, and he needs another, and everyone goes along with a big smile? I boycott TLC.

    October 25, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  20. Sarah

    What is so wonderful about that guy that four women would want to marry him?? I mean, he seems nice enough, but...

    October 25, 2010 at 4:34 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.