Mormon Church Explains Polygamy in Early Days

Associated Press/December 17, 2013

By Brady McCombs

A new historical narrative posted by the Mormon church on its website officially acknowledges that some plural marriages were performed following an 1890 ban and that polygamy was widely practiced in the late 19th century.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says in the new 1,400-word essay that most of the post-1890 plural marriages were performed in Mexico and Canada but that a small number were done within the United States.

The article posted Monday said polygamy ended completely after leaders reiterated the ban in 1904. Mormons had practiced polygamy for more than a half-century, starting in the early 1840s after Joseph Smith had a revelation.

By 1870, as many as one-third of Mormons lived in polygamous households, the article said.

The essay comes days after a federal judge in Utah struck down key parts of the state's polygamy law, though church officials say the timing of the post has nothing to do with the ruling. It is part of a series of postings to explain or expand on certain gospel topics for its members, church spokesman Eric Hawkins said.

The Salt Lake Tribune ( ) first reported about the article.

Mormon scholars say they have long known about the historical details in the new post but added that some facts may be new to many of the 15 million Mormons worldwide.

Armand Mauss, a retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University, estimates that less than 10 percent of rank-and-file Mormons know all that's included in the article.

The acknowledgement that as many as one-third of Mormons lived in polygamous households by 1870 goes against a widely held belief that polygamy was only practiced by 2 or 3 percent of Mormons, Mauss said. The new article and previous scholarly research show that polygamy was a formative institution among Mormons during that time, Mauss said.

The article also straightens out misconceptions that polygamy was a practical institution for taking care of widows or that it was the result of women outnumbering men, said Matthew Bowman, an author and assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

The article said Latter-day Saints still don't fully understand "all of God's purposes" for instituting plural marriage in the first place, though it noted that the practice increased the number of children born during the era. The article said the Bible and Book of Mormon call for marriage to be between one man and one woman — except for specific periods when God declares otherwise.

Scholars point out that the article only deals with polygamy in Utah and does not address plural marriages practiced in the faith in other parts of the country.

Jan Shipps, a retired religion professor from Indiana who is a non-Mormon expert on the church, said the Latter-day Saints should be lauded for addressing some of the sensitive issues of its past.

Earlier this month, the church issued a 2,000-word article offering its most comprehensive explanation of why the church barred black men from the lay clergy until 1978.

This new approach will help Mormons and non-Mormons alike who research the topics online, some coming with doubts because of the lack of information from church headquarters, Shipps said.

"The church is making it very clear that this is what they have to say," Shipps said. "They are being much more open than they used to be about their past. This is necessary because of the Internet."

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