Polygamy, practiced by Mormons in the past, was discontinued more than 100 years ago. It was a fairly uncommon practice, with only about one-third of married women being in a polygamous relationship. Thirty percent of these women were widowed or divorced prior to entering into a marriage of polygamy. Most such families had only two wives. The larger families were the exception, in part because a man had to prove he could support a larger family before taking on additional wives.
The polygamy of the 1800s was far different than the polygamy practiced by the FLDS today. The FLDS is not part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, which is the proper name for the church the Mormons belong to. Mormon is a nickname that can be used to describe the people, but not the church itself. Members of the FLDS are an entirely separate group and the Mormons have no control over them. Mormons who practice polygamy today are excommunicated because Mormons believe marriage between one man and one woman is God’s normal plan. Polygamy is approved only when God orders it and then only to fulfill his own purposes. The Bible contains records of a number of plural marriages, even among prophets.
Abraham married his wife’s handmaiden at his wife’s request in order to produce an heir. We see that the lineage created by this marriage was very important in Biblical history. Later, Jacob took additional wives, as did Gideon, Elkanah (the father of Samuel), and others. The Bible gave instructions on the treatment of additional wives and the resulting children, demonstrating that it had God’s approval. (See Deuteronomy 21:15-17 and Exodus 21:10-11.)
In the 1800s, men who wished to have multiple wives had to have permission from the first wife. She also had the right to approve the wives he chose. He had to have church permission, but the church did not assign wives unless asked to do so. Unlike the FLDS, Brigham Young did not randomly reassign families or break them up. Families chose their own members. A man who wished for additional wives had to be a particularly good husband to the first one, since the women who came into the marriage later had the opportunity to see how he supported and treated his first wife. If a woman agreed to marry into polygamy and then realized she couldn’t cope with it, Brigham Young granted divorces to the women, despite general church disapproval of divorce in most cases. However, if a man discovered he could not handle it, Young sent him home to work harder on his marriage. It is interesting to note that in many families, it was the wife who first felt impressed that God wanted her family to practice plural marriage and who talked a reluctant husband into it. These women also frequently encouraged the addition of other wives and many became good friends.
One reason some women may have enjoyed polygamy was that Brigham Young felt that if the children had enough other wives to care for them, the remaining women could return to school or take on employment if they chose. This, of course, was very uncommon in that time period. In addition, in the 1800s, the church sent married men on missions without their wives (this is not done today) and in a marriage with several wives, there was help with the many chores, the children, and the financial needs that had to be met while the husband was away. Sometimes for years, due to the slowness of travel.
Mormon women were strong due to the extraordinary persecutions they had faced, including mass murders of their families. They had survived life on a dangerous pioneer trail and had helped to settle an inhospitable wilderness. They were not easily frightened or beaten down and they took pride in the unusual amount of freedom they had. Until the government took over Utah, Mormon women had complete rights, including the right to vote. When the government came in, they took those rights away, but until that time, these were women who knew full suffrage. Eliza R. Snow, leader of the Mormon women and a wife first to Joseph Smith and then to Brigham Young (considered a courtesy marriage rather than an intimate one), said at a conference:
“Our enemies pretend that, in Utah, woman is held in a state of vassalage—that she does not act from choice, but by coercion. What nonsense!
“I will now ask of this assemblage of intelligent ladies, Do you know of any place on the face of the earth, where woman has more liberty and where she enjoys such high and glorious privileges as she does here as a Latter-day Saint? No! the very idea of a woman here in a state of slavery is a burlesque on good common sense … as women of God, filling high and responsible positions, performing sacred duties—women who stand not as dictators, but as counselors to their husbands, and who, in the purest, noblest sense of refined womanhood, are truly their helpmates—we not only speak because we have the right, but justice and humanity demands we should!” (See Jaynann Morgan Payne, “Eliza R. Snow: First Lady of the Pioneers,” Ensign, September 1973.)