"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. Alert. Sooner

    ....and you think only muslims are wacked out!

    October 30, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  2. Matthew R. Lee

    The Associated Press Stylebook notes: "The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other ... churches that resulted from the split after [Joseph] Smith's death."

    October 30, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
  3. rylee

    i think that if this is the life style that makes THEM happy, then thats all that matters. The show is on to only educate the world about THIER religion.So just shush and enjoy the show. You dont have to live thier life, so chill.

    October 30, 2010 at 5:40 pm |
  4. outawork

    first guy: What the penalty for marrying two women?
    second guy: two wives

    October 30, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
  5. vonStemwede

    I had a professor in college who was from Syria and a Muslim. His father took a second wife and he hated him for it. He said that it would have been much kinder fro his father to have divorced his mother and let her find anoher man to try to maker her happy. Instead the selfish jerk held on to her. Never visited her, cared for her or anything. It's the ultimate cruelty.

    October 30, 2010 at 5:12 pm |
  6. ShockingCommentary

    I want to try multiple husbands.

    October 30, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  7. Martin

    Several posters here have suggested that the Bible commands polygamy.

    Actually, it doesn't (contrary to the assertions of Joseph Smith in D&C 132), but the fact remain that several prominent men in the Old Testament had many wives (Abraham, David, Solomon). It could be argued that because these guys were the "good" guys, they must have been commanded by God to enter into their polygamous relationships. I don't buy this, because the "good" guys often got it wrong, as their respective narratives show.

    Further, the polygamous marriages in the Bible weren't quite the picture of domestic bliss. Famously, Abraham's first wife. Sarah, tries to kill Hagar (wife number 2, see Genesis 16). Perhaps the Hebrews learned the lessons about polygamy and its complicit polytheism the hard way, concluding that the King "...must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray' (Deuteronomy 17:17). Broadly, I think the Hebrews had settled on the one-husband-one-wife and one-God-one-nation paradigm around the time much of the OT was written, around the Babylonian exile in the 6th Century BC. By the time Jesus and his followers appeared on the scene, it was considered the norm, for very good reasons (see 1 Timothy 3:2, 3:12 etc.).

    Monogamy was also the norm in 19th Century North America, which is unsurprising considering the nation's Christian heritage and the religious revivals in the decades preceding Joseph Smith and the advent of Mormonism. This is important, considering that Smith re-introduced polygamy (and polytheism) in the face of a monogamist (and monotheistic) culture.

    The Brown family would not be polygamist if i were not for Joseph Smith's religious ventures, and it is disingenuous for modern Mormons to claim otherwise.

    One on-line discussion on this very topic is currently being held at http://blog.mrm.org/2010/10/cnn-drops-embarrassing-bombshell-roots-of-mormon-polygamy-and-continuation-of-it-in-the-afterlife/

    October 30, 2010 at 4:58 am |
  8. Law Breaker

    If there is a law against polygamy, how can they film a tv show about polygamy? Can I kidnap and film a show about kidnapping? Can I rob a bank and film a show about robbing a bank? TLC needs to be held accountable. Its fascinating. I am glued to the tv but it is still wrong. PS. The FLDS do not let their children watch cable so how does this work anyway?

    October 29, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
  9. SoundTruth

    Very well said, Sounder!!

    October 27, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
  10. Reality

    "Matt 28:16-20

    /16/ Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. /17/ When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. /18/ And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. /19/ Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, /20/ and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

    No he did not according to many contemporary NT exegetes.


    Gerd Luedemann

    Matt 28:16-20 The description of Jesus's appearance is minimal, as attention is focused on the content of Jesus' message to the Eleven. Luedemann notes that "the historical yield is extremely meager." He accepts the early tradition that various disciples had visionary experiences, most probably located in Galilee, and that these experiences led to the founding of "a community which preached the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as the Messiah and/or the Son of Man among their Jewish contemporaries." [Jesus, 255f.]

    But the simple, preacher man really utter these words?

    October 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  11. Jochebed

    If Mormons actually read their Bible and believed the words of Jesus Christ more than a man, Joseph Smith, they'd know that there is no marriage in heaven at all. Or perhaps they wouldn't be Mormons at all.

    October 27, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  12. Abu Abdullah

    sorry the appreciation is for "carolinago"

    October 27, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  13. Michael

    Who are we to tell anyone how to live thier lives. If they are happy, and not a burden on the system, why do we care? How about spending time on investigating the thieves in congress.

    October 26, 2010 at 10:35 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Or putting a few more pedophile religious charlatans in jail...

      October 26, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
  14. amyK

    come on all 5 of you,you knew this was illegal before you did the show or all of you would be married legally.When I first seen the previews of the show,I said TROUBLE was going to come out of it.Theres alot of shows about yhis kind of life,BUT they don't make weekly shows,it's a 1 time interview and the man is not showed.Because of the problems he is having,with his job.Me ,myself I will never share my husband with another woman,much less 3!!!It's just not the right way to live,and then all them kids.The teenage girls was on there talking about "this is not for them when they grow-up and get married",at their age they don't even need to be thinking about that.And these parents go and out their childrens life for the world to see,it just wasnt right to them at all!!!This last"so called wife" brings her 3 small children into a family this large,telling them to call these other woman MOMMY____,where is their father at?
    The trouble the are in with the law ,anyone could have told them this would happen,so they brought it on themselves.I just hate all these kids are brought in it too.GOD BE WITH THEM KIDS.

    October 26, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  15. K

    I'm just waiting for civil rights groups and lawyers to come out filing lawsuits FOR polygamists to get this a legal practice. We already have two shows glorifying it.

    October 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
  16. Frogist

    Too many responses, too little time.
    Let's get this out of the way... yes, these people are mormons. Just because you don't like that they call themselves that, doesn't make them any less so. We each have people we'd like to disown from our families, but that doesn't make them any less family.
    Polygamy, I don't have issues with it so long as it goes both ways. If a man is allowed many wives then women should be allowed many husbands. But from what I've read this is not the case with the Mormon tradition. It seems to me that polygamy of this kind favors the male. One man who can flit from wife to wife with the total blessings of his religious ideology.
    People who are putting down these women for having low self esteem etc, really shouldn't. Feminism asks that we respect the ability of women to choose for themselves. We should at least respect their choice no matter how innapropriate it seems for us personally. This topic is an interesting one because there is a growing secular trend called polyamory which is not a legal marriage per se, but it it still a faithful relationship between multiple partners. It does allow for one woman with many males and gay partners as well. It focuses on absolute consent and ethical behaviour so that no one is caught by surprise when a new partner appears. The obvious problems with this relationship is what happens to offspring or "spouses" when it comes to protections under the law. Since marriage is defined so narrowly, these relationships cannot be cemented in a legally binding contract that protects all within it.

    October 26, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  17. Winston

    I feel that polygamy is less perverted than gay marriage. When gay marriage is legal, polygamy will be right behind it. I hope all the people behind gay marriage will come to the obvious realization that it's against a man's civil rights to be denied the right to marry more than one woman, and it's against a woman's civil rights to be denied the opportunity to marry a man that is already married to other women. Supporters of gay marriage would certainly not stoop to that type of hate...

    October 26, 2010 at 11:59 am |
  18. Walter Rucker

    Man can't you share? You're just being greedy. My God these ladys must have been dropped on there head or something.

    October 26, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  19. Marus Rhodes

    Funny how all the anti-religion zealots are so quick to declare themselves the enlightened and educated ones while posting ignorant comments that are utterly irrelevant to the article. Has it ever occurred to you that the reason for the 'many gods' is simply that there were so many different peoples with different languages who experienced those events? And that as mankind began to reunite, these languages and perspectives appeared to be different? Thus Ares is Hercules is Heracles is Mars, etc. Hmmm... kinda sound like a tower of Babel situation may actually have taken place after all.

    The fact is that God is real. It's you who stand in question. As to doctrines that you've appointed yourselves worthy to condemn... Trust me on this... You'll get the chance to take it up with Him.

    October 26, 2010 at 10:32 am |
  20. Lite

    I would like to know HOW this man affords all these people in his home???

    October 26, 2010 at 10:06 am |
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