"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. james hotz

    There are times when there are no men left, and a woman can't be left to live alone. If a man can take care of 56 women it doesn't bother me. The Sultan of Istanbul had 300 wives, And Charlamane had 86 illegtimate sons. If you can't afford a woman why ruin her life.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  2. Jax

    Everytime I heard the word poligamy......it made my stomach turn.....so I had to watch this show to see what freak weirdos these people were.....and you know what.....they really aren't!! They are happy in the lifestyle they have choosen and they all depend on eachother and no one was forced into anything.....if they are happy and aren't bothering anyone......let them be......Warren Jeffs and the other fruits that force CHILDREN and other adults into marriages......that's a different story.....but they are happy.....they aren't hurting anyone let them be......I would never get into a poligamist marriage.....but thats just me!! And I love how they don't force poligamy on their kids!!!! They give them the choice!!!

    October 25, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  3. bttmstr

    Good for them... leave these people alone! Who is there to judge or tell people what to do? I'm not a polygamist, BUT I DO NOT CARE WHO IS! NOBODY SHOULD CARE. None of us created life or given it to others, that we should tell anyone how to live. ANYONE AGAINST THIS IS ANOTHER HYPOCRITE and/or JEALOUS of something. Neither in the koran or the bible (except for some excerpt by Paul in the NT teaches that it is wrong either, so forget about it... GOVERNMENT SHOULD BE FOR THE PEOPLE AND HUMAN RIGHTS AND BELLS::: FREEDOM:::: – NOT AGAINST IT!

    October 25, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
    • Vanessa


      What about the human rights of the millions of children who are being LIED TO, BRAINWASHED, ABUSED and RUINED be religion?

      October 25, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
    • IceT

      Religious indoctrination of children from birth is a form of child abuse. We give our children Santa, Easter bunny & the Tooth fairy and reveal the truth when a child matures and logically questions them. Logical deduction prevents them from continuing to believe on their own, but many are force fed the continued belief in God out of their parents own indoctrinated fears.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
  4. Patrick

    This is one sick lifestyle. It is an abuse of women by a megalomaniac. No woman should be "one of many" wives. It is not an honorable way of life. Her dignity as an intelligent and free person demands better than this.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
    • bttmstr

      lol how silly, what about human rights in general? we live a fraction of a second in the eternity of the universe... do you really care how anyone lives their fraction of this eternity? and who's right is it to decide? it sure ain't yours and it shouldn't be anyone's but that persons alone. lol.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
  5. ThinkRationally

    The problem I have with this is that in some (many?) fundamentalist communities, children are indoctrinated from birth that this is the way it is. Outside influence is restricted, as is education. There are very strong pressures not to leave or break with tradition. Women (sometimes young girls) don't have any perspective outside of this–in that sense, these communities can be like cults. To me, this borders on abuse because of the pressures and lack of outside contact involved. Young women are basically corralled and coerced into this lifestyle. Many do agree with it, likely because that's what they've been taught to do all their lives. Many of them would completely disagree with my assessment, but I don't think it's far off.

    I have no problem with three or more people wanting to be in a relationship, provided none of them are participating because of social pressure or childhood indoctrination. Perhaps legal plural marriage would be a bit difficult to work, with property laws and so on, but if you just want to live together and share your life, go to it.

    The reason it's probably a good idea to keep this illegal is that there's not much way to establish the difference between indoctrination and someone who's experienced the world and decided this is what they want. How do you separate the wife-factory societies from those who truly have made this choice freely?

    October 25, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
    • Patrick

      It is a cult.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
    • bttmstr

      and who are you to care? you gave them life? you pay their mortgage? you have to feed them? you pay for their children's school? does it affact you how these children are indoctrinated in any way at all?.... I highly doubt it, so live your life and stfu.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
    • ThinkRationally

      Well, heck, bttmstr, why care about children who are beaten or deprived of a happy childhood by parents who don't care? Why care about the victims of crimes? Why be concerned for those who are being defrauded by unscrupulous people? Why care about the sick? If simply not knowing or being related to people is license to not give a hoot about whether they are being taken advantage of, abused, or somehow victimized then we'd all be very selfish.

      You sound like someone with a stake in this, although I'm not sure. You can tell me to stfu, but if you apply your comment to some other things it becomes apparent that you haven't thought it through.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
    • bttmstr

      ThinkRationally, that is not the point, those are completely different things. This is not abuse, this is choice and these people have a right to it.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      But what about children forced to practice the religion of their parents? Do you really believe they get to explore alternative "books-of-silliness" or can choose a different religions or to be an atheist without fear of disappointing their parents? The only difference is the "degree of wackiness" – some supernatural beliefs and practices are generally accepted by society and a few are not, but none have a rational basis in the 21st century.

      October 25, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  6. ATD

    I'd like to know why they don't get polygamy right?

    Everyone knows that one man can't last longer than a few minutes with a woman–what the heck is he going to do with a couple?
    The correct polygamist relationship is one with multiple males–all employed-and if there's enough men in a marrige working together towards the same goal–pleasing the woman of course--just maybe they will eventually figure out how to make at least one woman happy.


    October 25, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
    • MsT

      Right on, ATD! Not only must my brother husbands be employed, they must be wealthy, healthy, young, and gorgeous with perfectly sculpted fat-free bodies, and they are to speak only when spoken to. Of course there is to be no football in our home, I am never to prepare a meal, wash a dish, walk a dog, care for a sick child, pick up a dirty sock, clean a toilet, or make love unless I am completly in the mood. Now that's a TLC show I'd like to see–better yet, star in.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:10 pm |
  7. dt

    I have a step mom and 2 step brothers.... am I going to hell? Nooo the problem isn't the 60% divorce rate, or the inability to keep a happy household. This guy is the problem with America. His large happy family. How dare he. In a country with p0rnagraphy that outsells all other countries in the world combined. Ooooo this guy. Let me find my religious book, because he shouldn't be allowed to do things forbidden in there. Thats why I moved here. So I can adhere to the laws of a certain religion. How dare he practice his religion in a way that affects only my sensibilities. Get him!!!

    October 25, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  8. dt

    I have a step mom and 2 step brothers.... am I going to hell? Nooo the problem isn't the 60% divorce rate, or the inability to keep a happy household. This guy is the problem with America. His large happy family. How dare he. In a country with p0rnagraphy that outsells all other countries in the world combined. Ooooo this guy. Let me find my religious book, because he shouldn't be allowed to do things forbidden in there. Thats why I moved here. So I can adhere to the laws of a certain religion. How dare he practice his religion in a way that affects only my sensibilities. Get him!!!

    October 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  9. Fred

    Why do I get the feeling that WE are supporting these people via some sort of welfare or food stamp program. ...... I can barely afford one wife, . How in heavens name can these nut cases afford 2 or more ??????????????.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  10. Vanessa

    I can't believe in the year 2010, people still believe in "god". That said, these people are hurting no one BUT their view on plural marriage should not be legalized. If you start letting people's stupid beliefs in "god" allow them to do what they want ("freedom of religion"), then we will have to allow filthy, pedophile, muslim men marry 6 year olds.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      You seem to be an atheist. Why are you singling out muslim men? Wouldn't it make more sense to riducule all believers?

      October 25, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
  11. IceT

    Millions of children are currently in plural parent families. There are birth parents, step parents, custodial grandparents, 1/2 siblings, 3rd marriages etc... and all are currently legal and accepted by society. Really, what's the real difference between a plural marriage and serial marriages (multiple marriages but 1 at a time)? The only difference ... societies realization that it's no different than what we're currently doing.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  12. J

    Up next: Gay Mormons and "brother husbands".

    October 25, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Now that was just too dam-n funny.. LOL....!!! 🙂

      October 26, 2010 at 2:21 am |
  13. Benjamin

    Joseph Smith and the "prophets" after him are totally wrong about God's teaching on polygamy. Since the fall of humanity with the sin of Adam and Eve, the relationship between a man and woman has been greatly disfigured, which is aptly recorded in the Old Testament and easily recognized in our own time. What did Jesus teach about marriage?

    Jesus is the fulfillment of "the law and the prophets," in other words, Jesus completes God's revelation to humanity. Jesus taught this when asked about marriage: "From the beginning God made them male and female, for this reason a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two become one. What God has joined together let no one separate." (Mark 10)

    Jesus called people to live together as God originally planned "from the beginning" of creation: one man and one woman in a loving, monogamous and indissoluble relationship. Jesus used the words "male and female, a man clings to his wife, the two become one." Based on Jesus' teachings and the perennial practice of Christians until the 1500's, divorce, bigamy, polygamy, etc were all forbidden.

    Jesus did not change his mind on this issue. Joseph Smith and the "prophets" after him are deceived and are guilty of deceiving other people, causing many people to live in darkness.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  14. Vanessa

    The so-called prophet, Joseph Smith, was having an affair and when found out by is wife, he told her "god told me to do this" and she was stupid enough to believe him. So now he's thinking "hey this worked once, I can do it many times" and he did.
    Man created "god", not the other way around.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  15. Tiara

    here is the problem with america...with open arms they say you can come and practice any religion and then when people do begin their practices they want to decide to make some practices illegal. As a Christian I totally disagree with multiple marriages. The article was typically fair but either way it goes they will end up in hell for their wrong doings...point blank period.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
    • Bob

      Unless the Mormons are right! Don't you watch southpark? They are the ones that got it right and everyone else goes to hell!

      October 25, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  16. Innacurate

    "Among those revelations recorded in 1843 in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of Mormon scripture, were teachings about plural marriage."

    This part of the article is inaccurate. The Doctrine and Covenants is a separate book and from the Book of Mormon. It is a book that purports to be revelations from Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, on how the church should be governed. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is a book which shows Christ's dealing with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
    • Alma

      Inaccurate, the commas act as parentheses in the sentence. It isn't saying that the D&C is in the Book of Mormon, it's saying it is a book of "Mormon scripture," not a "Book of Mormon" scripture.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  17. Jim

    As far as I know, The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The law of the land states that you can "legally" only be married to one peson in the eyes of the government. My question is how can the government tell you that you cannot "spiritually" marry another person within the confines of your religion and faith? I understand if they will only recognize one person as the legal spouse, but to say that a person cannot have more than one "spiritual" partner is absurd! These people did not try to marry multiple partners "legally"! They didn't try to get multiple marriage licenses! What law is being broken here? Get back to work on the real problems this country is facing.....I can think of a few that are way more important if you need direction! Maybe you should stop listening to special interest lobbyist groups, taking the money and favors they offer, and listen to real people so you can solve real problems.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • Vanessa

      re: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
      Should we then allow filthy, pedophile, muslim men to marry 6 year olds? Should we allow stupid people to pray over their critically ill child, instead of taking them to hospital? Should we allow evil parents to genitally mutilate thier newborn baby boys? Where does it end?

      October 25, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      Only if we also allow filthy, pedophile, christian men to marry 6 year olds....

      October 25, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  18. David Johnson


    And of course you have proof of this. Right?

    October 25, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  19. racnem

    valerie, Jesus established the CHRISTIAN church, not the catholic church. Catholicism is a pagan religon. Just research the origin of all its customs.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • Chris

      He did no such thing. Jesus was a Jew and made it clear he was not here to change the law but to fulfill it. The entire Christian Church premise is a fraud..the church was established by other people.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • John

      Look at this fundie. ON THE ROCK I SHALL BUILD MY CHURCH. Jesus was talking to Peter. Peter set up the Roman Catholic Church. All other churches came about because of Luther.

      I tried to simplify it for you.

      October 25, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
  20. J

    Bizarre, wonder how long it will take the fourth wife to get fat like the others and this guy picks up an new younger thinner fifth wife....?

    October 25, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • David Johnson


      Yep, just keep trading in the old model for a younger, lower mileage one.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:06 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.