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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. Tiff

    I believe the girls are brainwashed into thinking that they desire to be in a plural marriage because they are taught that they should want this and they observe their mothers in this. However, I think the girls arent privy to the feelings of jealousy that their mothers experience; those feelings are probably expressed outside the presence of the children (expressed privately among the wives and/or the husband). The unfortunate result is that the girls dont know about these feelings until after they've married. I think this is how Wife #1 feels in the Sister Wives show. In the episode that she and hubby celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary, I felt so sorry for her when she said she was unable to oversome the feelings of jealousy but that she is trying to deal with those feeling because it will "make [her] a better person."
    : (

    October 25, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  2. ohyeaa

    the one on the right is kinda hot

    October 25, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  3. Sam

    I am surprised that a people of so few numbers get so much attention. I also agree that one wife is plenty, but I guess instead of sleeping around the guy has the gumption to marry the women.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  4. R

    And all so contrary to Jesus' teachings. Wonder where the Mormons think they are going?. . .

    October 25, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  5. alwaysragginsomethin

    I wouldn't want to have to live with 4 women in the same house. Those guys got a lot of patience, or they know how to keep their women in line by makin them believe that god wants them to... Who cares as long as it's not happenin to you? I'm so tired of christians trying to change the world. They have failed miserably for eons. Just let these guys do their thing, if they believe in it. There isn't any real god anyhow, so let them believe as they want.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  6. Jessica

    If, as I suspect, these fools are taking state welfare to support the "non-married" spouses & families this guy and the bunch need to be sued.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  7. swampnole

    I'd say the like of Jon and Kate and Octomom pose bigger problems than polygamists. But, we'll keep giving them book deals and TV shows..

    October 25, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
  8. 180

    I used to be against polygamy. I didn't think it was the governments business to go after polygamists, but I thought it was morally wrong. However, after watching this show Sister Wives, I have done a 180. I think polygamy is okay for whomever want to live that lifestyle. I also think it's very brave and admirable for that family to do a reality tv show; to be so vulnerable and open about it... I think it's awesome.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
    • Roanna

      I wouldn't have trouble with polygamy if it weren't for the fact that the women by definition are not and cannot be equal partners with the man. Also, children are brought up to believe that they should not expect equal partnership in marriage either. And, in practice, young girls are often married _way_ too young to these men... that is simply pedophilia.

      No woman with true self respect would choose to be treated this way by a man.

      October 25, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
    • Flora

      Of course it's awesome... if you're a GUY.

      This is blantant disrespect to every one of those women on the part of the "husband", and simply so that he can feel like king of the rock cause "God said so". Let a woman try to pull this stunt and marry mulitple men – the LDS church would probably have her killed (not to mention the constant griping from the men).

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

    i hate to be the kind of person who points these things out. A) joseph smith didnt' translate golden plates. he CLAIMED to have translated them. B) in the last paragraph, it's "we'd just as soon the government stay out of our marriages". Either she said it wrong, in which case you should add a [sic] after "assume", or you transcribed it wrong.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  10. autom

    It's not the government's business to dictate how many personal relationships you may have. There shouldn't even be a need of government approval of the first wife.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
  11. muzak

    With only one legal wife, the other wives with kids file for child support from the state as single parents. Mormons call this practice "bleeding the beast." This was one of the main sources of income for Jeffs at his town on the Arizona-Utah border.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
  12. Joe Tex

    Polygamy has been with us since the beginnig of time. In the Old testament of the Bible, Father abraham has wives and concubines. So as King David and his wives. King Solomon and his wives. In the book of Genesis, God created a man & a woman, Adam & Eve, then they had two sons, Cain & Abel. Now, how do you think one of their son able to have children.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
    • Krista

      Certainly Cain and Abel (not that they're literal figures) did not commit incest. This shows a flaw in the Genesis story when it says they found wives... where did those wives come from? Obviously, even if these were literal figures, there were other people.

      October 25, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
  13. Roanna

    Emma Smith and her son stayed in Missouri, stating that Brigham wasn't supposed to be the next leader of the church, and reformed the church as the Reorganized Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter Day Saints, now known at the Community of Christ. They disavowed polygamy from day one, as well as other unusual beliefs of Mormonism including the man can become gods principle and baptism of the dead. Courts ruled that this was the church that succeeded the church started by Joseph Smith and all original properties are owned by the Community of Christ.

    It's interesting two such very different denominations can come from the same root, but that's true of most of Christianity.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  14. qedpro

    I love this quote

    “We don’t want it legalized. We want it decriminalized,” she says of plural, spiritual marriages. “We just assume 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.”

    Do you think they'll give the same back to gays and lesbians.
    I think not.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
    • Nathan

      She's saying that she wants the same thing gays and lesbians have now; the ability to live together as consenting adults publicly and without fear of prosecution. She's not asking for special legal status for her "marriage". She simply wants the government to leave her alone, which is what the government in most states is doing right now with gay/lesbian couples. They are free to live together without fear of prosecution, but they have no special legal status.

      October 26, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  15. Jim

    The fact that this guy has the same haircut as his wives makes me think that maybe he just wants to be one of the girls.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  16. John

    Mormons break the covenant of God (marriage) that he set up with Adam and Eve.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
  17. sally

    That show was interesting at first. But I got so bored with all the women talking and talking and emotions going every which way. Never said anything intelligent and seem uneducated and really immature. Even the husband to a degree. Im glad it's over!

    October 25, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
  18. Rob

    I really dont see problem with this at all. If consenting adults want to enter into a relationship like this that should be their business. Everyone seems to love to judge everyone elses morals. Morals are individual beliefs and not everyone agrees with each others.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
    • Flora

      I would agree with that, if it wasn't for the fact that children are involved. Someone's got to provide for those kids, and the women are rarely able to work outside the home. That's why a lot of them simply collect child support & welfare and live off of that. Simply put, ploygamy is more often than not a one-way ticket to the poorhouse, and the children are helplessly along for the ride.

      October 25, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
  19. Canesha

    Are women allowed to have multiple husbands? I'm just curious.

    October 25, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • Martin

      Not according to Brigham Young, the second Prophet after Joseph Smith. He taught...

      "The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy"

      Journal of Discourses 11:269, 1866.

      October 30, 2010 at 4:28 am |
  20. Tony

    I am in, where do I sign up!! I love it- 4 different women i get to sleep with!! what a Great Concept!
    I would love to have that!!!! right about now!!

    October 25, 2010 at 5:16 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.