Latter-day Saint offshoots revere plural marriage

Southern Utah University/October 29, 2007

This is the first in a three-part series, published on succeeding Mondays, about fundamentalism in southern Utah.

Editor's Note: In the original version of this story, the discontinuation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' practice of plural marriage in 1890 was misidentified as being more than 150 years ago. The Journal regrets the error.

Polygamy is often seen as synonymous with Mormonism, even though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued the practice in 1890. However, a variety of fundamentalist groups still practice the principle of plural marriage as taught by early church leaders.

While the Warren Jeffs trial has drawn national attention to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and those practicing plural marriage, confusion and misunderstandings still persist concerning fundamentalists and their relationship with the church, observers have said.

"It's long been assumed that everyone in Utah is of the same ilk, and that is certainly not the case," said Richard Christensen, Cedar City LDS Institute of Religion director.

The term "Mormon" is commonly used in reference to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, "Mormon" can more broadly describe a variety of groups derived from the church founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The largest of these groups is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - at more than 13 million members - followed by the Community of Christ, formerly The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - at more than 250,000 members - and a variety of fundamentalist groups - with about 20,000 adherents collectively - according to, and Marianne Watson, a self-employed historian and Lehi resident who specializes in fundamentalist topics.

There are about 30 groups, as well as large, independent families, practicing plural marriage under the banner of Mormonism, Watson said.

Even though the groups professing Mormonism are varied, their history has a shared beginning.

During a time of religious conflict in New York in 1820, Smith sought answers from God concerning which church to join, according to literature produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Smith recounted in his history that God the Father and Jesus Christ visited him and told him not to join any existing church, because they "were all wrong" and that the full gospel would be revealed to him later.

This revelation, which is now referred to as the First Vision, is considered by church leaders to be the beginning of the restoration of the gospel, according to, an official church Web site.

In 1827, Smith claimed an angel entrusted him with gold plates engraved with the history of an ancient American civilization, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The engravings also included the gospel of Jesus Christ taught in ancient America.

The restoration included the visitation of additional angels to bestow on Smith the needed priesthood, "the power and authority of God given to men on earth to act in all things for the salvation of God's children," in order to restore the gospel and the church of Christ, according to

Smith gathered followers in 1830 when he published the Book of Mormon and organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

As part of this restoration, the Latter-day Saints "devised new secular institutions, including collective ownership and polygamy, which was practiced by Smith himself and by most leading Mormons," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The murder of Smith in 1844 led to a crisis of succession, where the church and the reorganized church originally split, but the fundamentalist movement didn't begin until Wilford Woodruff, third president of the church, issued a manifesto that called for the end of the practice of plural marriage, Christensen said.

The practice was given up at a time when the church was under pressure from the federal government, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The federal government was most concerned with the "shadow government" of the Utah Territory, or the church's control of the territorial government, said a Cedar City fundamentalist leader on condition of anonymity.

"The battle cry was on polygamy because it was the most vulnerable aspect of the church," he said.

Christensen said there are those who are opposed or offended because Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy in the first place and others are upset because they don't anymore.

"These (fundamentalist) groups felt like (polygamy) was something they wanted to continue," he said.

However, for fundamentalists, it's more critical than a practice.

To obtain eternal life, "there must be a plurality of wives," Watson, a fundamentalist, said.

Read Monday's edition of the University Journal for the second part of the series as the Journal investigates the different doctrines and practices of modern fundamentalists in southern Utah.

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