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Polygamy is the marriage between a spouse and multiple partners. Most commonly polygamy is practiced between one man and multiple wives.[1]

Polyandry (from Greek andros, man) is the practice of one woman having multiple husbands. Polgyny is the precise term for the practice of one man having multiple wives. Both have been practiced in a number of societies, though polygyny is considerably more widespread.

Often there is some form of status difference. For example, a concubine may have recognition or even a legal status, but not the same rights as a wife. In some systems, the senior wife (tai tai in Chinese) has authority over other wives and over concubines.

Some religions allow polygamy. Notably, Islam allows a man to have up to four wives provided that he can afford to support that many and that he treats them all equally. Arguably, Muhammad introduced certain reforms in the status of women, since he placed those limits on men and forbade female infanticide; in his time, those were radical reforms.

Polygamy in Mormonism

The history of Mormon polygamy (more accurately, polygyny) begins with the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (often referred to as Mormonism), Joseph Smith, claiming to have received a "revelation from God" on July 17, 1831 that some Mormon men would practice "plural marriage". This was later published in the Doctrine and Covenants by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church).[2] Despite Smith's revelation, the 1835 edition of the 101st Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, written after the doctrine of plural marriage began to be practiced, publicly condemned polygamy. This scripture was used by John Taylor in 1850 to quash Mormon polygamy rumors in Liverpool, England.[3] Polygamy was made illegal in the state of Illinois[4] during the 1839–44 Nauvoo era when several top Mormon leaders, including Smith,[5][6] Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, took plural wives. Mormon elders who publicly taught that all men were commanded to enter plural marriage were subject to harsh discipline.[7] On June 7, 1844 the Nauvoo Expositor criticized Smith for plural marriage. After Joseph Smith's murder by a mob on June 27, 1844, the main body of Mormons left Nauvoo and followed Brigham Young to Utah where the practice of plural marriage continued.[8]

In 1852 Brigham Young, the second president of the LDS church publicly acknowledged the practice of plural marriage through a sermon he gave. Additional sermons by top Mormon leaders on the virtues of polygamy followed.[9] Controversy followed when polygyny became a social cause, writers began to publish works condemning polygamy. The key plank of the Republican Party's 1856 platform was "to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery".[10] In 1862, Congress issued the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act which clarified that the practice of polygamy was illegal in all US territories. The LDS Church believed that their religiously-based practice of plural marriage was protected by the United States Constitution,[11] however, the unanimous 1878 Supreme Court decision Reynolds v. United States declared that polygamy was not protected by the Constitution, based on the longstanding legal principle that "laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices."[12]

Increasingly harsh anti-polygamy legislation in the US led some Mormons to emigrate to Canada and Mexico. In 1890, LDS Church president Wilford Woodruff issued a public declaration (the Manifesto) announcing the official discontinuance of polygamy. Anti-Mormon sentiment waned, as did opposition to statehood for Utah. The Smoot Hearings in 1904 spurred the LDS Church to issue a Second Manifesto against polygamy. By 1910 the LDS Church excommunicated those who practiced polygamy. Even so, many plural husbands and wives continued to cohabit until their deaths in the 1940s and 1950s.[13]

Enforcement of the 1890 Manifesto caused various splinter groups to leave the LDS Church in order to continue the practice of plural marriage.[14] Polygamy among these groups persists today in Utah and neighboring states as well as in the spin-off colonies. Polygamist churches of Mormon origin are often referred to as "Mormon fundamentalist" even though they are not a part of the LDS church. Such fundamentalists often use an 1886 revelation to John Taylor as the basis for their authority to continue the practice of plural marriage.[15] The Salt Lake Tribune stated in 2005 there were as many as 37,000 fundamentalists with less than half of them living in polygamous households.[16]

In September 2010 TLC premiered a reality television series entitled Sister Wives, which deals with polygamy by a self-described fundamentalist Mormon family in modern day Utah.[17]


  1. Polygamy. Retrieved on 2010-10-18.
  2. Doctrine and Covenants 132 as found at lds.org
  3. THREE NIGHTS PUBLIC DISCUSSION Between The Revds. C. W. Cleeve, James Robertson, and Philip Cater, and Elder John Taylor, Of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, At Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France. Chairman, Rev. K. Groves, M.A., Assisted By Charles Townley, LL.D., and Mr. Luddy. pp. 8–9
  4. Greiner & Sherman, Revised Laws of Illinois, 1833, pp. 198–199
  5. Todd Compton, "A Trajectory of Plurality: An Overview of Joseph Smith's Thirty-three Plural Wives", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 1–38.
  6. Smith, George D (Spring 1994). "Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 1841-46: A Preliminary Demographic Report". Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (1). Retrieved on 2007-05-12.
  7. Times and Seasons, vol. 5, p. 423, February 1, 1844
  8. Lifting the Veil of Polygamy (2007, Main Street Church) A documentary concerning the history of Mormon polygamy and its modern manifestations.
  9. Journal of Discourses 11:128 Brigham Young - June 18, 1865 - "Since the founding of the Roman empire monogamy has prevailed more extensively than in times previous to that. The founders of that ancient empire were robbers and women stealers, and made laws favoring monogamy in consequence of the scarcity of women among them, and hence this monogamic system which now prevails throughout Christendom, and which had been so fruitful a source of prostitution and whoredom throughout all the Christian monogamic cities of the Old and New World, until rottenness and decay are at the root of their institutions both national and religious."
  10. GOP Convention of 1856 in Philadelphia from the Independence Hall Association website
  11. Free Exercise Clause - First Amendment
  12. Reynolds v. United States at findlaw.com
  13. Polygamy entry in the Utah Historical Encyclopedia, University of Utah, 1994.
  14. "The Primer" - Helping Victims of Domestic Violence and Child Abuse in Polygamous Communities. A joint report from the offices of the Attorneys General of Arizona and Utah. (2006)
  15. "An 1886 Revelation to John Taylor"
  16. "LDS splinter groups growing" by Brooke Adams, August 9, 2005 - SLT Article ID: 10BF07C805DE5990
  17. http://www.timesunion.com/entertainment/article/TLC-tackles-polygamy-with-Sister-Wives-673086.php