Joseph Smith first introduced polygamy in 1831, shortly after he established the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Depending on your view point, he either was commanded by God to marry dozens of women, and he did so reluctantly, or he really wanted a lot of wives and he used religion as an excuse to obtain them.
Joseph had his closest allies, such as Brigham Young and John Taylor, who became the next two prophets and presidents of the Church after Smith was killed, take extra wives as well. In 1835, Smith published a revelation from God that condemned polygamy, even while he was practicing it. The leaders of the Church began expanding the practice, even as they publicly denied it, and more and more men and women were encouraged, at times coerced, to enter polygamy. There is evidence that shows Smith, and others, used coercion, or their influence as church leaders, to marry women, some who were already married to other men.
It wasn’t until 1852, when the Mormons were settled in Utah (then not part of the United States) that Brigham Young publicly acknowledged polygamy, and then made it a standard practice. Young, who had more than 40 wives, talked about it as a divine principle; one man spreading his time, money, attention, and energy among the number of wives he took in. Members were taught that in order to be holy and in good standing, they had to participate, and if they didn’t want to, they were called selfish or sinners; all faithful members should want to enter these complicated family systems because it is what God wanted.
The United States was outraged, and began to work tirelessly to shut down polygamy in all United States territories (as Utah wouldn’t become a state until 1896). In 1862, polygamy was deemed officially illegal, but the Mormons thought their religious status protected their rights to practice it. The case went to the Supreme Court, and in 1878 it was deemed that even for religious institutions, polygamy was illegal. But by this time, there were thousands upon thousands of families in Utah practicing polygamy. And men as they aged continued taking young virginal wives, some 14 and 15 years old marrying men in their 60s and 70s. But it wasn’t until 1890 that the fourth Mormon prophet, Wilford Woodruff, publicly stated to Mormons that polygamy shouldn’t be practiced. But families were now into their third generation of polygamy; children who were born into polygamous households now had grandchildren becoming fourth wives. And polygamy was still being practiced. In 1904, the Church again had to remind members not to practice polygamy anymore, but it still continued happening, and then again in 1920, the Church finally made it grounds for excommunication. By this point, polygamy had been practiced for approximately 90 years, and it continues to exist in many communities in 2016.
Ida Hunt was born in a central Utah town in 1858. In 1882, she became the second wife of David Udall, a local church leader who already had a wife, Ella. David and Ella were reluctant to be polygamous, but a personal letter from the prophet of the church, John Taylor, told David that he wasn’t setting a good example for the Mormons who followed him, and told him that all Church leaders were expected to be polygamous. So David married Ida in 1882 . Ida became pregnant. And then David, by all accounts a good man, went to jail for polygamy. Ella was left with her children without support, and Ida had to go into hiding with her daughter so they couldn’t use her as a witness against David.
Doing the math here, it was four years AFTER the United States declared polygamy illegal even in religious institutions that the Mormon prophet was encouraging/coercing leaders to take more wives. And 8 years after the marriage of Ida and David that the Church first said it was no longer a sanctioned practice. I recently read Ida’s published journals, her accounts of living on her own, without support or husband, for years as she had to stay hidden while trying to provide for a child. President Grover Cleveland eventually pardoned David, and Ida named her first son after the president. She ultimately had six children. She spent the next few decades, strained financially and having problems with Ella, and David struggled financially with both. Ida died in 1910 of a stroke, far too young. David and Ella ended up married for 50 years before their deaths.
Reading her words, I was struck by her thoughts about the United States government. She expressed again and again how she felt Satan was influencing the government, forcing adversity against God’s Saints, forcing prejudices against the holy order of polygamy. These beliefs were backed up by her local leaders. She never once saw the institution as illegal or morally wrong, because she had been raised believing it was right.
I was raised Mormon. Polygamy was always something in the shadows. Mormons still believe it to be an eternal principle, something that will be practiced in Heaven, men with multiple wives. They tone it down to soften the blow, saying things like it is only in place so that women who never got a chance to have husbands will get the chance in Heaven. All that said, nearly every Mormon I know is a little disturbed by the practice; it elicits discomfort and sadness when it comes up in conversation.
At the same time, I see the same defense mechanisms that Ida had in place with Mormons today as well. I hear excuses about how Satan is influencing the government to do things like make gay marriage legal, and how Mormons have it right with traditional and Celestial families. These same arguments were likely used during the Civil Rights era, and during the “women’s liberation” movement.
Ultimately, though, the Church comes around. Polygamy was declared illegal, blacks were given the Priesthood, and in time, gay marriages will be allowed, in some measure that will allow the Church to save face.
What makes me most upset, however, are the lives lost in the balance. The young mother hiding with her child while her husband is in jail, the black child growing up believing he is less than his white peers, the gay couple keeping their relationship a secret so they won’t be excommunicated. The consequences of these teachings in family last entire lifetimes, and in the generations that follow. Even now, there are thousands upon thousands of families engaging in polygamy secretly, feeling it is their religious obligation to do so, and blaming the government for persecuting them.