Despite the LDS Church's repeated efforts to distance itself from the polygamy-practicing Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, many Americans have trouble distinguishing the two.
More than a century ago, the now 13-million member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially discontinued its practice of polygamy and today excommunicates anyone who promotes or practices it. Those who want to participate in temple rituals are asked whether they "support, affiliate with or agree with" any opposition groups, which is often understood as code for polygamists. And the church's global missionaries cannot share the church's message with African polygamists.
Mormons do not live in isolated compounds, arrange marriages, dress in old-fashioned clothing or wear unusual hairstyles, LDS Apostle Quentin L. Cook said Friday in a video interview. Rather, they are participating members of the communities in which they live, get married at the average age of 23, and are well educated.
Still, it's easy for casual observers of the two groups to be confused.
After all, the FLDS trace their origins to LDS founder Joseph Smith, use the same religious freedom arguments and have the same devotion to their prophet-leader as early Latter-day Saints did to Brigham Young. The FLDS follow Mormon scripture, worship in the same way, subscribe to LDS tenets and were willing to go to jail for their beliefs.
Indeed, the FLDS see themselves as the true Mormons, holding fast to "the principle" once considered essential by LDS faithful.
A biblical precedent
Smith first encountered the idea of taking multiple wives, Mormons believe, during his 1831 study of Bible passages describing the polygamous marriages of revered figures such as Abraham, Jacob and David. It was part of Smith's efforts to "restore" the ancient order of priesthood, which he taught was lost over the centuries.
In 1843, Smith recorded what he said was a divine revelation, defining "a new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also the plurality of wives." He initiated it among a small circle of followers.
After Smith's death in 1844, Mormon pioneers took plural marriage to their Great Basin kingdom in Utah. There it flourished, first in secret and then openly, until the U.S. government stripped polygamists of their right to vote, hold office or own property. It eventually disincorporated the LDS Church itself and refused to allow Utah to become a state.
Finally, in 1890 LDS President Wilford Woodruff issued "the Manifesto," in which he promised "to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the church over which I preside to have them do likewise."
Though the LDS Church had disavowed polygamy, it is still enshrined in Mormon scripture (Doctrine & Covenants 132) and some believe it will one day be re-established, if not on Earth, at least in heaven. In his quasi-official 1966 book Mormon Doctrine, which remains in print, the late LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that "the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming and the ushering in of the millennium."
And by policy, men can be "sealed" for eternity in LDS temple rites to more than one wife, though women are permitted only a single sealing.
Three of the church's current apostles, for example, were widowed and remarried. Each will have two wives in the eternities.
Then and now
These days many Mormons see the polygamy of the past as a noble, God-sanctioned venture, but the contemporary practice as not only illegal, but debased, unhealthy and burdensome on society.
Indeed, there are differences between then and now, said Kathryn Daynes, who studied Mormon polygamous communities in her ground-breaking book, More Wives than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System 1840-1910.
In the 19th century, the number of practicing polygamists varied. At its height in 1860s rural Utah, Mormon polygamy involved about 46 percent of the population; in the capital city, it was much lower.
While there were instances of men with dozens of wives, two-thirds had only two.
"On the frontier when life is really hard, you have more women going into plural marriage," Daynes said. "As their fortunes rose, you saw fewer women doing it. More and more women who were born in Utah elected for monogamy."
Whether polygamous or monogamous, just about everyone married.
"There were no 'lost boys'," Daynes said, referring to the FLDS teens who either leave or are kicked out of the sect.
Brigham Young did not arrange marriages unless asked and readily consented to a divorce, allowing any woman who wanted to get out. Second and third wives were more likely than first wives to divorce, but they didn't always turn to monogamy. Many were remarried in polygamy.
A third of plural wives were raised in polygamy, a third had no fathers in their lives, and a third were widowed, divorced or older.
In other words, Daynes said, two-thirds of the women had economic motives for marrying a polygamist.
The influx of immigrant women, many of whom were older, was another real difference, Daynes said. The FLDS is a more inbred, closed society, with no outreach or new converts.
Another one is the allegation against the FLDS of underage marriages.
"I am hard-pressed to think of a place in the U.S. during the 19th century where a young girl marrying at 15 was abused at that time," she said. "The common-law marriage age was 12. In so many other cultures, when a woman came close to puberty, usually at 14 to 15, it was assumed, she was ready for marriage."
Now, that is not just unacceptable, it's a crime in most states.
The FLDS mentality mirrors the 19th century, Daynes said. "I suspect it is hard for them to get their minds around that. They are living in another time in many ways."