"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. Ralar

    "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."

    So, the LDS church excommunicates polygamists, but converts Jews posthumously. Please explain.

    October 26, 2010 at 10:05 am |
  2. Janna

    I hope this is gone for good. Like so many other things on tv, it was a disgrace to people who are trying to live right and walk with God and his word. How people choose to live their lives is their choice, but please keep garbage like this off tv!

    October 26, 2010 at 9:59 am |
  3. Alicia

    Muneef (?!) was that English? Learn the language.

    October 26, 2010 at 8:31 am |
  4. notmylife

    Hey, I say, if these guys want to live their life like that and they say they are happy, more power to them. They can deal with their maker when the day comes. BUT in the mean time... Just don't use state funds in any way to support that lifestyle. IE, welfare, assistance etc. That is where I say they should be investigated. Support yourself and your life style but don't take my tax money to support a lifestyle that is not legally recognized. NOT that there are not MANY people abusing the system who are not married or have one partner. But that is another complicated issue.

    October 26, 2010 at 2:57 am |
  5. lordkid

    God said to be the husband of one wife..anything else is adultery and fornication. Marriage is sacred between a couple,
    one male and one female, not multiples at one time.

    October 26, 2010 at 1:57 am |
  6. Frank

    This guy is greedy and I think his 'wives' are devaluing themselves by believing they have to 'share' a man. That old saying about your spouse being your 'better half' comes to mind. If he needs this many wives, he must have not had much to start with!

    October 26, 2010 at 1:46 am |
  7. shaun williams

    I never cease to be amazed at the sheer ignorance of the media as they write these stories about people who practice polygamy insisting that they are all "fundmentalist Mormons" there is no such thing, they have nothing to do with the Mormon Church whatsoever. A mormon is one who professes and practices Mormonisim and who is active in the church, anyone who does not fit in this definition is not a Mormon, it is plain and simple. The reason that the media uses the term "mormon" in these stories is two fold, it causes people to read the articles and it is forbidden by law. The Mormon Church has not endorsed nor practiced polygamy since 1893, any person who practices polygamy is excommunicated and is no longer a member of the Mormon Church. I sure wish the media would get their stories correct and write the truth, about those who are simply polygamists and leave off the false claims that they are renegade Mormons, they are nothing of the kind.

    October 26, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  8. Skyhawk

    I love your show... I think you all seem like great, loving, responsible parents and people. I hope that the wives have all adjusted to their roles with a fourth having come along.
    As a gay person ("married" to one woman for 10 years) with two wonderful kids that we love dearly, I take so much joy in seeing how you all make it work in a world that doesn't always treat you kindly. God bless you all for the way you love your children. Those are some happy kids. I worried for all of you when Robin's wedding was coming. Hope all is well-settled now.

    October 25, 2010 at 11:51 pm |
  9. LEB

    And just how does the FLDS recommend to dispose of the excess male population that results of a common practice of polygamy? The natural ratio of baby boys to baby girls born is about 106:100. If men want to take 4 wives, then WHERE do the extra men go?

    I'll tell you where... jihadic wars and suicide bombings, including those that involve vehicles of transportation crashing into buildings. Polygamy is DETRIMENTAL to society.

    October 25, 2010 at 11:34 pm |
  10. debbie

    I don't know, I think this whole polygamy thing could have it's advantages. I was married to a man that was a serial cheater, and some surveys say 50% of married men cheat on their wives. WIth their situation, you always know where he is and who he is with, you have someone helping you clean, cook, drive carpools, take care of the kids, play Scrabble with and especially during and after menopause, who CARES where he sleeps, as long as it isn't with me????

    I am thinking this isn't a bad idea after all...........

    October 25, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  11. LadyMiniMe

    I think u all make typo's; shouldnt it be the "LSD-church" instead of the LDS church. All the stories about the revelations sound like by someone being on lsd........

    October 25, 2010 at 10:20 pm |
  12. bully

    More power to them. If thats how they chose to live and they are not a burden on society, Whats the problem? Their children probally come out a lot better than the rest.

    October 25, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  13. Petunia

    I still say they are four ugly women who have to share an ugly man. He likes them chubby doesn't he. And here I thought gluttony was a sin.

    October 25, 2010 at 9:44 pm |
  14. Forgot to Mention

    That the popes in the Catholic Church were laundering money for the Mafia. One of the popes who wanted to "clean up" the Vatican, was murdered! His incoming buddy pope knew about it too. How sweet is the Vatican and these "holy" opes?

    The Vaticanist historian Peter De Rosa, in his best seller, -t-i-t-led "Vicars of C[h[r[i[st the Dark Side of the Papacy" -that is, the unknown false face of a coin which has kept us deceived for centuries, teaching us a false history and making us believe that the papacy is the seat of Peter and rock of Ch-r-i-s-tianity; when we can now prove that it is not so, and that her acts and deviations from the teachings of Ch-r-i-st are not the same as those of a Vicar of Ch-r-ist: she is an impostor who has as-s-umed the divine authority.

    October 25, 2010 at 8:57 pm |
  15. Semper.Fi

    So I'm getting out of this that I can go steal. Why? Because my religion says it needs to be done to enter heaven, but there is the right and wrong. Of course I'm not going to steal, for purposes of "AGAINST THE LAW"...think that could be the main issue. Think God had that law made to help mankind out. So obviously God had the law of marriage to one to help mankind out.

    October 25, 2010 at 8:37 pm |
  16. David

    Why should we care? How many deadbeat dads are out there that have 3 or more kids, each with a different mother? A LOT for sure, but no one is putting them in the headlines. It's semantics: "marriage" Big whoop.

    Really? It's the _polygamy_ part of FLDS that bothers you? Not the "some guy found gold tablets in the dirt in New York that revealed a new religion" part? All religions are based on some nut job who got a bunch of other weak-minded people to follow his incredible ideas. Some were just more successful than others. If someone tried to found christianity today, they would be adjudicated mentally defective, and their "church" certainly wouldn't qualify for tax-exempt status robbing the government of trillions in income.

    October 25, 2010 at 7:59 pm |
  17. redcat

    maybe it wouldnt be so bad having someone to share house work, the husband have someone to help with the kids. as long as everyones on the same page ,and what would be the chances of that ?

    October 25, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  18. sugarbunns

    the first 3 that were married are genetic sisters. If anyone watched the first episode, thats where they explain that they 3 all sisters by the same father. This is disgusting either way. If you wanna live off the bible, there's the new testament to follow.

    October 25, 2010 at 7:52 pm |
  19. Monica

    Can anyone say ew?!

    October 25, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
  20. Drew

    As long as all parties are over 18 (at the inception of the relationship) and all of the children of these plural marriages are cared for by the couples (e.g. no welfare for single mothers) , then I am not certain what right the government has to has to tell them what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes (just like gay marriage today and sodomy / interracial marriages from decades past). My problem with freaks in the FLDS is the marriage of young girls to older men, a simple excuse for pedophilllia. The people in those religions that engage in these types of marriages should spend a long time in prision. And the same for those who abuse the welfare system

    October 25, 2010 at 7:43 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.