What does the Mormon Church teach about polygamy

What does the Mormon Church teach about polygamy?

Understanding Mormon Culture



Polygamy and the life of Joseph Smith are the last subjects I want to discuss with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints. Why?  Because these subjects are likely not to lead us to present the biblical gospel.  Mormons are sensitive to the issue of 'plural marriage’ (they prefer this term), as sometimes polygamy flashes into domestic headlines in USA, which is embarrassing to them. So the discussion of 'plural marriage’ places Mormons in a defensive position. People who are in a defensive position cannot think clearly and are not likely to listen to a presentation of the biblical gospel. Our purpose is to encourage Mormons to wrestle with the biblical gospel.  It is better not to debate even about the virtues or otherwise of Mormon Church history. Presenting the gospel is more important. Having said this, I was always curious to know how Mormons understood the practice of plural marriage. I have had opportunities to hear Mormon apologetics on this at the “Church History in the Fulness of Times’ class at a Mormon Institute class.


Gordon B Hinckley, the president of the Mormon Church, said in a 1998 general conference that the Mormon Church has nothing to do with those practicing polygamy.  “ If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the Church can impose…”       


Then what does the Mormon Church teach about ‘plural marriage’ to their members?   In a Mormon Institute class, Elder N, who is a senior missionary from Utah, said that many outside Mormon Church misunderstood how polygamy was practiced in their Church.  According to him, in those days many women joined the Mormon Church, and not many jobs were available for single women except for seamstressing and prostitution. Plural marriage was only allowed for worthy priesthood holders, who were wealthy.  In addition, wives’ approval was required. [Joseph Smith did not get his wife (Emma)’s approval !]  Elder N’s great grandfather, of Danish origin, was a polygamist with three wives.  The woman who came with his great grandfather’s family from Denmark, working for them and living with them, became the second wife.  When a manifesto was proclaimed banning polygamy (1890), the great grandfather divorced the first two wives, giving each a big house and enough money, and stayed with the third wife, as the children by the third wife were small.  Elder N’s great grandmother used to say that polygamy was a curse, as each wife always watched the other two wives and their children to check if they had received more expensive presents or more affection from the husband.  If told a story like this by a likable and respectable grandfather– like figure (Elder N) all the time, Mormons will believe what they have been told.  


Mormon apologists try to justify ‘plural marriage’, as it provided for single women beyond marriageable age and it involved religious ceremonies (‘sealing’). They insist that it should not be confused with bigamy or adultery. However, the majority of plural wives were younger than the first wives and there was a shortage of women in the frontier. The practice of polygamy did not end in 1890, it continued with private official sanction for about another fifteen years while at the same time it was publicly denied.1 It is right to say that plural marriage has been put on the shelf since 1890, as Joseph Smith’s teaching on plural marriage in the Doctrine & Covenant 132 has not been denounced and is still in Mormon scripture.


Doctrine & Covenant 132:4 says that polygamy is an “everlasting covenant” (lasts forever) and those who do not obey it cannot go to the celestial kingdom. Wilford Woodruff, the fourth Mormon prophet said,”… And I now declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land ” (1890 Official Declaration # 1 at the end of the Doctrine & Covenant dated September 24,1890 and is LDS scripture).Note Woodruff is not giving a commandment but only advising.  Many Mormons would say that plural marriage was outlawed.


Late Mormon apostle, Bruce McConkie, teaches that the practice of plural marriage will begin again after the Mormon version of “the Second Coming of the Son of Man and the ushering in of the millennium.” (Mormon Doctrine, p.578 -non official Mormon source). However, no good purpose will be achieved by arguing about polygamy with Mormons.



Please see

For official Mormon apologetics on polygamy

          “Polygamy: Latter-day Saints and the Practice of Plural Marriage” under the section of “Mistakes in the News” (


For objective studies on polygamy


      ·  Richard N.Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Chapter 4 “Polygamy then and now” in “Mormon America” (HarperSanFrancisco)

      ·  Fawn M Brodie, ”No One Knows My History, The life of Joseph Smith”(Vintage Books) - available from Utah Lighthouse Ministry (


      · Jerald and Sandra Tanner,  “Joseph Smith and Polygamy”- available from Utah Lighthouse Ministry (


      ·   Richard S. Van Wagoner, “Mormon Polygamy - A History”  (Signature Books)
·   Todd Compton, “ In Sacred Loneliness, The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith”  (Signature Books)

      ·   D.Michael Quinn, “LDS Church authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904  ” originally published in Dialogue:   A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1985 (Sunstone) or visit





1.      John Farkas & David Reed, Mormons- How to Witness to Them (Grand Rapids, Baker Books,


 See the article, “LDS Church authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904” by D. Michael Quinn at

2.      See the following non-titled article on Mormon teachings on polygamy by Marvin Cowan. This article appeared is a newsletter Mission to the Americas (January 2003). Marvin Cowan is an ex-Mormon and now a Baptist pastor in Salt Lake City




  2585 Dolphin Way
Salt Lake City, UT 84121
January 2003




Dear Praying Friends,


When Brigham Young died, John Taylor became the third Mormon Prophet.  On page 14 of Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, John Taylor, he said, “The truth does not change.  What was true 1,800, 4,000, or 6,000 years ago is true today, and what was false in any age of the world is false today.  Truth, like the great Eloheim, is eternal and unchangeable...”  The January 2003 LDS Ensign magazine says the above book was prepared by the Mormon Church as the 2003 curriculum for the Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society which includes most Mormon adults (p. 20).  In the same Ensign article Taylor said, “When men go forth in the name of Israel’s God, there is no power on earth that can overturn the truths they advocate”(p. 27).  Taylor’s son asked his father how far the new and everlasting covenant (about polygamy in Doctrine  & Covenants Sec. 132) was binding upon the LDS people?  John Taylor replied that he received a revelation on September 27, 1886 which said, “Thus Saith The Lord all commandments that I give must be obeyed by those calling themselves by my name unless they are revoked by me, or by my authority and how can I revoke an everlasting covenant?  For I, the Lord am everlasting and my everlasting covenants cannot be abrogated nor done away with but they stand forever...I have not revoked this law nor will I for it is everlasting and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof. Even so.  Amen” (Unpublished Revelations, vol. I, p. 206).   


But less than four months after Taylor’s “revelation” Congress passed the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act making polygamy unlawful, disfranchising all practicing polygamists, and confiscating expensive LDS properties.  So, four years after Taylor’s “revelation,” the “new and everlasting covenant” was revoked by Taylor’s successor, Wilford Woodruff, who was the fourth LDS Prophet.  He said, “I therefore, as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner, declare that..We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice...And I now publically declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land” (Official Declaration–1, at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants is dated September 24, 1890 and is LDS scripture).  [D. & C. 132 is still in LDS scripture but polygamous marriages are performed only for the dead in Mormon temples.] Woodruff also said, “I say to Israel (Mormons), the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of the (LDS) Church to lead you astray” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, pp. 212-213).


The last quotation by Woodruff has been taught by all LDS Prophets.  But is it true?  Notice that Taylor said truth is eternal, God’s covenants are everlasting, no power on earth can overturn the truths of God’s people and God had not and would not revoke the law of polygamy.  But polygamy was revoked four years later by the next LDS Prophet, Wilford Woodruff, who also said the Lord would never permit him or any LDS Prophet to lead the Church astray!  Mormons need to know the unchangeable God of Malachi 3:6 whose word really is eternal (Isa. 40:8).


  Sincerely in Christ,
Marv & Jan Cowan

Mission to the Americas, 2715 Welton Street, Denver CO 80205