Is America Ready for Polygamy?

“Plural marriage” has long been regarded as an abomination, for good reason

This essay originally appeared in The American Spectator on February 29, 2020 (here).

Brigham Young and his wives. Photo courtesy of Utah Historical Society

Utah, where 60 percent of the population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), is considering the decriminalization of polygamy. The GOP-controlled Utah state Senate recently passed such a bill, unanimously. Is America ready for this? Polygamy, illegal in all 50 states, is practiced in the U.S. by fundamentalist LDS sects, primarily in isolated pockets of Utah and Arizona. Contrary to the impression created by the reality TV show Sister Wives, polygamous households in the U.S. are very uncommon, comprising approximately 10,000 people in FLDS and related groups. (Despite the popular connection to the Mormon faith, a far greater number of Muslims—as many as 50-100,000—live in polygamous households in the U.S.) Only 17 percent of the American public approves of polygamy—up from just seven percent in 2003.

The overwhelming level of disapproval is consistent with historical attitudes. Polygamy—usually referring to a marriage between a man and multiple wives—has never been tolerated in America. When Joseph Smith introduced the practice in the Mormon enclave of Nauvoo, Illinois in the early 1840s, it was met with outraged opposition by the non-Mormons in the community.  Indeed, some historians believe that Smith’s promotion of “plural marriage”—a religious doctrine that Smith claimed was inspired by a divine revelation—was one of the main sources of the non-Mormons’ hostility to Smith and his followers.  Smith, who had dozens of wives, was murdered by an angry mob in 1844 and his followers were driven out of Illinois two years later.

In 1846-47, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, led thousands of Latter-Day Saints to what is now Utah, where the practice of polygamy continued–and increased–under the auspices of the Mormon church, until it was disavowed in 1890. Utah became a U.S. territory in 1850, and Young—President of the LDS Church–was named the first governor. The bellicose Young, who took as many as 55 wives (sources vary), was a controversial leader. He resisted federal control over the Utah Territory, and in 1857-58 threatened military action when the U.S. moved to replace him as governor. Relations with the U.S. were strained further when some of Young’s followers were implicated in the 1857 massacre of non-Mormon settlers passing through southern Utah in a wagon train headed to California. At least 120 men, women, and children were slain by attackers posing as Indians near Cedar City, Utah. Americans were incensed by the so-called Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Polygamy, which at the time was practiced by approximately one-quarter of Mormon households in Utah, was repugnant to the rest of the country, which viewed it as an abomination. During the Presidential Election of 1856 a key plank of the newly formed Republican Party’s platform was a pledge “to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism: polygamy and slavery.” In 1862, federal law banned the practice of polygamy (the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act), although enforcement was postponed until 1887. The Edmunds Act (1882) and the Edmunds-Tucker Act (1887) strengthened the proscription. Utah had long sought statehood (originally as the “State of Deseret” in 1849). Statehood petitions were also submitted in 1856, 1862, 1867, 1872, and 1882. Even following Young’s death in 1877, however, American opposition to polygamy stymied Utah’s statehood. Sally Denton, author of American Massacre, writes that “Mountain Meadows and polygamy had threatened Utah’s statehood for decades.”  

In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on polygamy, which went so far as to disincorporate the LDS Church and authorize the federal government to seize all of the church’s assets. In The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. United States, [1] the Court denounced polygamy as “abhorrent to the sentiments and feelings of the civilized world,” a “barbarous practice,” a “nefarious doctrine,” and “a blot on our civilization.” [2] The Court stated that

The organization of a community for the spread and practice of polygamy is, in a measure, a return to barbarism. It is contrary to the spirit of Christianity, and of the civilization which Christianity has produced in the western world. The question, therefore, is whether the promotion of such a nefarious system and practice, so repugnant to our laws and to the principles of our civilization, is to be allowed to continue by the sanction of the government itself, and whether the funds accumulated for that purpose shall be restored to the same unlawful uses as heretofore, to the detriment of the true interests of civil society. (Emphasis added.) [3]

(None of that Obergefell New Age philosophizing here!) The Court gave equally short shrift to the church’s argument that the practice of polygamy is protected as a form of religious expression:

This is altogether a sophistical plea. No doubt the Thugs of India imagined that their belief in the right of assassination was a religious belief, but their thinking so did not make it so. The practice of suttee by the Hindu widows may have sprung from a supposed religious conviction. The offering of human sacrifices by our own ancestors in Britain was no doubt sanctioned by an equally conscientious impulse. But no one, on that account, would hesitate to brand these practices now as crimes against society and obnoxious to condemnation and punishment by the civil authority.

The state has a perfect right to prohibit polygamy and all other open offenses against the enlightened sentiment of mankind notwithstanding the pretense of religious conviction by which they may be advocated and practiced. (Emphasis added.) [4]

The three dissenting justices agreed that the practice of polygamy could be banned, but disagreed regarding the forfeiture of property:

Congress has the power to extirpate polygamy in any of the territories by the enactment of a criminal code directed to that end, but it is not authorized, under the cover of that power, to seize and confiscate the property of persons, individuals, or corporations, without office found, because they may have been guilty of criminal practices. [5]

The Court’s condemnation of polygamy itself was unanimous.[6]

Only after the LDS Church repudiated the future practice of polygamy in 1890 (via the Woodruff Manifesto, named after church president Wilford Woodruff, who issued it following the unfavorable Supreme Court decision), and the prospective state adopted a ban on polygamy in its Constitution, [7] was Utah finally admitted into the union in 1896. Even though it shunned the practice 130 years ago, the LDS church has long battled with the public perception that it condones polygamy. FLDS is a splinter group, and likely an embarrassment to most Mormons anxious to forget the controversial origins of the Beehive State.  Utah is often viewed negatively as the epicenter of the renegade FLDS and its bizarre practices. Jon Krakauer’s 2003 best-seller, Under the Banner of Heaven, portrayed the FLDS culture in a very unfavorable light. Warren Jeffs is the ultimate symbol for the abuses of polygamy.

Intact, two-parent families–the bedrock of western culture—face unprecedented challenges, such as a high (and rising) illegitimate birth rate, couples getting married later in life, and a declining fertility rate. Our disintegrating culture recently witnessed a scandal involving a bi-sexual member of Congress from California engaged in what is politely referred to as “polyamory.”  The term “throuple” was officially introduced into mainstream public discourse. None of this bodes well for the future.

It is ironic, therefore, that in 2020 family-friendly Utah legislators would seek to decriminalize polygamy—reducing it from a felony to an infraction, like a traffic ticket. The sponsor of the bill, Republican state Sen. Deidre Henderson, explained that her motivation is “to give some certainty to otherwise law-abiding consenting adults who practice polygamy while also allowing for enhanced penalties for those who commit other serious crimes.” In light of the Mormons’ complicated history and the historical association with a sordid practice still reviled by most Americans, the solicitude for “otherwise law-abiding” polygamists in Utah is puzzling indeed.

1. 136 U.S. 1 (1890).

2. Id. at 48-49.

3. Id. at 49.

4. Id. at 49-50.

5. Id. at 67.

6. The holding was, moreover, consistent with the precedent in Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878).

7. Article III of the Utah Constitution (which is “irrevocable without the consent of the United States”) states that “polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.”

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