The Polygamy Story

The really challenging way to have a marriage

Polygamy, or plural marriage, was practiced by a small percentage of the Mormon pioneers and is perhaps the most misunderstood practice of all Mormondom.

Supporting plural wives, financially and emotionally, was never an easy thing to do, as many men now could attest from being married to only one. The members of the Church followed "the principle," as it was often called, for religious reasons.

Plural marriage served a practical purpose for the Mormon pioneers as well, allowing for women to be cared for even if there were not enough men, as well as lifting the burden of some household responsibilities. A pair of wives who shared a house, for example, shared household responsibilities.

Eliza Ann Graves, Charles C. Rich's second wife, spun and wove fabric and sewed and knitted clothing, including Rich's suits. Sarah Jane Peck, his fourth wife, sold eggs from the farm, carded and spun wool into thread, and knitted it into mittens, stockings, or sweaters.

Brigham Young explained part of the purpose of plural marriage in his response to the question: What is the largest number of wives belonging to any one man? Brigham Young said, "I have 15; I know no one who has more; but some of those sealed to me are old ladies who I regard rather as mothers than wives, but whom I have taken home to cherish and support."

Support was a significant part of plural marriage, and before a man was allowed to take another wife, he would have to receive permission from the religious leaders, normally receive approval of his other wife or wives, receive permission from the parents of the potential wife, and show that he was capable of supporting another wife, both financially and emotionally.

Mark Twain's View

The practice of polygamy was one that caused a great deal of controversy. Laws were passed against polygamy, and Utah was denied statehood for a time because it was still accepted. It was even humorized by Mark Twain, who said in his book, Roughing It:

"With the gushing self-sufficiency of youth, I was feverish to plunge in headlong and achieve a great reform here [to abolish polygamy] -- until I saw the Mormon women. Then I was touched. My heart was wiser than my head. It warmed toward these poor, ungainly and pathetically homely creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said, 'No; the man that marries one of them has done a deed of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure, and the man that marries 60 of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nation should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.'" The numbers of people practicing plural marriage varied throughout the pioneer period. At the height of its practice, approximately one-third of the population was involved in polygamy as husbands, wives, or children in polygamous families.

For a better idea of how polygamy worked, check the chapters on Charles C. Rich, Bill Hickman, John Gardiner and Brigham Young.

It is important to note that the Mormon Church does not practice or endorse polygamy today, and its practice is grounds for excommunication.

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31 Mar 2006