Polygamy: the Guiding Principle

Salt Lake Tribune/June 28, 1998
By Tom Zoellner

Colorado City, Ariz. -- It is known here simply as "The Principle.''

The legendary commandment from Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, for men to take more than one wife is what makes outlaws out of nearly everybody in town.

But they believe it will bring them inexpressible glory in the life to come.

``We are called to this by God,'' said Don Timpson, a faithful member of the Centennial Park chapel in Colorado City. ``It opens and expands the mind in a way that monogamy doesn't. The Mormon Church has been monogamous for over 100 years and they have lost the expansive faith of earlier generations. They have become pinched up.''

Polygamy, or ``spiritual wifery,'' was undertaken in secret by early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith foremost among them. The prophet is said to have wed more than 50 women, including some of his friends' wives, by the time of his assassination in 1844.

His revelation on this matter, later described by Brigham Young as ``one of the best doctrines ever proclaimed,'' was secretly recorded in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1843.

Now known as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the famous decree is still a part of Mormon scripture: ``If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and if the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins and have vowed to no other man, then he is justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him.''

Critics of the Mormon Church have claimed ever since that Smith was crafting an elaborate theological justification for his sexual dalliances.

But proponents of polygamy have always pointed to the Biblical examples of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, all of whom took more than one wife, and also to God's commandment to ``multiply and replenish the Earth.''

The doctrine also occupies a central place in the Mormon view of the universe as a backdrop for the eternal progression of humankind.

According to the theology, God has created a multitude of spirit children who need the male-female union to be born into this world and sent on their eternal path upward. The children may one day become gods over their own worlds.

With polygamy, an average man is able to father many times more children than he would with only one wife, and thus bring more souls out of the pre-existence and set them on the path to eternity.

It also dampens the impulse to commit adultery and allows many older women to have a family where they wouldn't otherwise, advocates say.

Polygamists are adamant that sexual gratification plays no role in their multiple affections. The purpose is much more spiritual, they say.

``We're not seeking women; we're not down in the bushes looking for women to marry,'' said Timpson. ``That's what God hates. It's done through his order and by revelation.''

Love -- not sex -- is the greatest motivation in plural marriage, he said. ``The purpose of polygamy is to learn to love a lot of people, and to expand a person's heart. There's no room for selfishness.''

Polygamous husbands often compare the unique varieties of love they feel for each of their wives to the love that parents often feel for their individual children.

``What if somebody says, `You can't have more than one child? How can you love more than one child?' '' asked David K. Zitting, a faithful member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. ``The more you love, the more capacity you have for love.''

It is considered bad manners in Colorado City for outsiders to ask about the exact size of a family. But here are a few examples of their large families from polygamists' own obituaries:

-- Alma Adelbert Timpson died April 2, 1997, at the age of 92 in Colorado City, leaving behind 66 children and 347 grandchildren.

-- Gas-station owner Darrel Vincent Cooke, 39, who died in Colorado City in 1995, was survived by two wives and 19 children.

-- Wilford Woodruff Steed, who died in 1994 at age of 94 and is buried in Colorado City, was survived by six wives, 43 children and 235 grandchildren.

To live as a polygamist is to ensure oneself some economic hardships. Supporting multiple wives and children requires financial ingenuity and canniness, according to those who have lived it.

``Of course it's economically difficult,'' said Cyril Bradshaw, who supported two wives and 21 children by supplementing his income as a schoolteacher with consulting work on the side. One of his wives earned money baby-sitting.

``It takes a lot of scraping and organizing to get by,'' said Bradshaw. ``There is a lot of government support in these large families.''

Polygamy was a system better suited for the rural economy of the 19th century, when most family's sustenance came directly from the soil, said Jessie Embry, a professor of history at Brigham Young University.

``More hands makes the work lighter, so to speak,'' she said. ``In urban areas, where you have to depend on wages, polygamy becomes very difficult.''

Even wealthy 19th-century husbands in Utah were somewhat hard-pressed to care for their families during a time when supporting polygamous families was easier, said Davis Bitton, a retired history professor from the University of Utah.

``You didn't require as much capital in those days because people could live off the farm,'' he said. ``It was still hard on the wives, very hard on some of them. The remarkable thing is they had this religious conviction that compelled them to keep going.''

Salt Lake City retained a distinctly rural character that made polygamy economically feasible into the early part of the 20th century, Embry said. According to the LDS Church's civic design, the city was dotted with chicken coops and fields and each house came with a sizable portion of land so residents could be self-sufficient.

The eventual urbanization of Salt Lake City coincided with the LDS Church's official disavowal of polygamy in 1890 and its large-scale excommunications of known polygamists in the 1910s.

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