Gregory L. Smith, M.D., offers a helpful and highly informed perspective on the controversial 19th-century practice of polygamy among Latter-day Saints in his article, “Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions about the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” at FAIRLDS.org. If you’ve struggled with the issue of polygamy (struggled with it philosophically, not in practicing it, I hope!), this article helps clarify why it was kept secret for so long, why it was not about personal gratification, and why many of the anti-Mormon charges based on it are weak or even absurd. As for the charge that it was just an excuse to allow Church leaders to gain physical gratification, I find that particularly absurd. There are plenty of ways to gain the “benefits” of immorality without the insane burden of marrying one’s conquests. Polygamy in the early LDS Church was a good way to get yourself killed or jailed or in all sorts of other hot water and distress (hint: how many in-laws did Brigham Young have to deal with??), and in general just doesn’t make sense as merely an excuse for men having fun. To look at the lives and writings of the men and women involved, it’s much more plausible to see polygamy as a painful sacrifice, even something of an Abrahamic test for the virtuous Puritanical stock that dominated Church membership rather than a moral loophole for the personal pleasure of perverts.
Yes, there were problems and mistakes and even disasters for some, and I think we’re nearly all relieved to be over a century away from that practice. But it was not the sensational, demonic practice that its critics made it out to be, or that HBO will make it out to be in their “Big Love” travesty (a hideous series that will associate modern immorality with the Church, confusing people into thinking that Mormons still practice polygamy and even do it Hollywood style).