Not a Myth After All? Too Few Mormon Men in the 19th Century and the Temporary Role of Polygamy

‘Go west young man’ and sex ratios” at is an important contribution toward our understanding of possible purposes behind the temporary practice of polygamy in the Church in the nineteenth century (yeah, probably my least favorite topic). It’s been easy to dispel folk lore about polygamy being required because of so many Mormon men being murdered during the persecutions the Church faced. However, a more careful look at the demographics shows that there was in fact a shortage of Mormon men relative to women of marriage of age, not so much because of men being killed, but because of much higher conversion rates among women, resulting in a large influx of unmarried women to Utah. In the absence of polygamy, they would have been much more likely to turn to predominantly male non-Mormon population of Utah to find spouses or remained single in a place and era when one can argue that this was much more undesirable than it is today. Not that this was the reason–we don’t know what it was–but, as Keller, the author says, it “at least seems like a positive side effect.”


Author: Jeff Lindsay

34 thoughts on “Not a Myth After All? Too Few Mormon Men in the 19th Century and the Temporary Role of Polygamy

  1. Interesting post, Jeff. It certainly is a enigmatic & complex historical issue. I realize that the Church has not had this practice in a LONG time, & I can sympathize with the "dead horse" feeling that most modern LDS feel when this subject is brought up.

    My question concerns the common assertion that polygamy is "no longer doctrinal": Does not the current practice of allowing widowers (but NOT widows) a second temple marriage (i.e. Elder Oaks) reflect the theological idea that polygamy may (will?) be practiced in the CK? Is there another interpretation?

  2. I don't know of any knowledgeable member of the church that has said that polygamy is "no longer doctrinal". It is only said that it is no longer practiced.

    In this age, where people have opportunity and blessing to marry as a result of romantic love, polygamy certainly seems unpleasant, an definitely unromantic.

    It seems hard enough to find one woman to put up with me, let alone many, and whats more, more wives mean more mothers-in-law. Ugh.

    But, if you can step back with emotional detachment, and study the doctrine, you can begin to connect the dots that lead to polygamy, and eventually, you will realize that the Lord's plan would not be fair if polygamy was not part of it.

    It it worked out that for every worthy man who qualified for all the blessings of heaven, there was one woman who also qualified, then there would be no need for polygamy. But this will not likely be the case. Are prisons full of men or women? Who is typically the active person in a part-member family.

    For other gospel ordinances, people who have not had the opportunity to receive them on earth, can accept them through proxy work done in Temples. In a similar vein, polygamy provides an opportunity for women to be part of eternal families of their own choice when there is a shortage of qualified men. Were it not so, many women would be shut out of the Lord's program for lack of good men and plan of exaltation for the families of the earth would be frustrated.

    Now, there are some breakaway "Mormon" sects that incorrectly read that all men must practice polygamy to receive all the blessings of salvation. But this cannot be right in a mortal environment, because it cannot be known now that there is at least a 2 to 1 ratio of men to women. This has led to the ostracizing of some young men to preserve the ratios. This is a wicked practice.

    However, for a good idea on what the ratio of men to women may look like, I refer you to 2 Nephi 14:1.

    I am convinced that the practice of polygamy was never meant to have much place in mortality. I believe that it was practiced in the early church for three reasons.

    First, to restore all doctrines of gospel and all covenants.

    Second, to try the faith of His people.

    Third, to make it part of our culture, so that when we die and get to heaven, we won't be so surprised.

    On earth we are limited by the constraints of time. So we must spend time with one wife at the expense of others. But heaven is not restricted by time in the same sense.

    Furthermore, and this may be difficult for some people to comprehend, heavenly beings do not need other people to be happy. Meaning, that other people do not have leverage over your happiness. So while polygamy seems like it might hurt our happiness now by disturbing our emotional neediness, it will not have that affect on us as we approach perfection.

  3. That still doesn't explain why Joseph Smith chose to be "sealed" to women who were already married to living husbands.

  4. This still doesn't explain why Joseph Smith chose to be "sealed" to women who were already married to living husbands. Or why he married 14 year old girls. I know Mormons cringe at Warren Jeffs and say he's not Mormon, but he leads his life more righteously than Joseph Smith did.

  5. anonymous, think about what you just said in your question. You put "sealed" in quotes and not married. Why is that? Perhaps because they are different from each other. I highly doubt I am wrong, but I bet you will not find Joseph "sealed" to a woman who is already "sealed" to another living man. He probably married 14 year old girls because he isn't from the 20th and 21st Century and neither is G-d. Marriage to such young girls by a far older man is not unheard of in history or even the Bible (Mary and Joseph come to mind). I just don't have the same problems with these questions because I don't believe that G-d's morals are the same as our own.

  6. carey n megan said…
    "I don't know of any knowledgeable member of the church that has said that polygamy is "no longer doctrinal". It is only said that it is no longer practiced."

    President Hinckley was a pretty "knowledgable member of the Church", and he told Larry King it was not doctrinal. While his statement was in the context of discussing "earthly" polygamy, the "polygamy is not doctrinal" statement seems less than honest, considering its centrality to the Mormon DOCTRINE of the afterlife.

  7. Anonymous, I hate to be one of those jerks that demands sources when others say things they don't want to hear. But I would like to see the direct quote from Pres. Hinckley to know what he said on the matter. Because I don't think I've ever heard a leader say its no longer part of our doctrine.

    I could probably explain Joseph's sealings to temporally married women, or the Helen Mar Kimbal case, but people who are determined to believe Joseph was a pervert will remain unconvinced, so there's no real point.

    I will say this though. Charlatans have used religion to get sex from the beginning of time. There are a lot easier ways to get women than to institute polygamy.

    Think about it, everyone views the polygamists in southern Utah as a bunch of wierdos. But few people bat an eye they hear sports players or rock stars father children with multiple women.

    And, if you ever look at a picture of Brigham Young's wives, you can't believe he was doing it for the sex. Bleh.

  8. So, I took the initiative to see what Pres. Hinckley said about polygamy on larry king, and here it is.

    Gordon B. Hinckley: "The figures I have are from — between two percent and five percent of our people were involved in it. It was a very limited practice; carefully safeguarded. In 1890, that practice was discontinued. The president of the church, the man who occupied the position which I occupy today, went before the people, said he had, oh, prayed about it, worked on it, and had received from the Lord a revelation that it was time to stop, to discontinue it then. That's 118 years ago. It's behind us. "

    So, this is pretty consistent with the way leaders speak about polygamy.

  9. ok, so scrolling down the Hinckley interview I think found what you're talking about.

    Gordon B. Hinckley: I condemn it, yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal. It is not legal. And this church takes the position that we will abide by the law. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, magistrates in honoring, obeying and sustaining the law.

    So, I can see how one might think he's declaring polygamy in general as not doctrine, but I believe in this case he is using "doctrinal" as "correct", meaning they are not practicing polygamy in a doctrinally correct way because they are breaking the law.

  10. thanks, Carey, I can accept that. Church leaders are human, & can't be expected to be absolutely clear on all points of doctrine at all times. btw- I'm not the same "Anonymous" who was questioning JS's motives btwn your post & Jetboy. I respect your faith.

  11. Just one further point: Considering the whomping the Church has taken over this issue, why hasn't the notorious D&C 132 been ammended? It wouldn't even take prophetic Revelation to at least amend the chapter heading, would it?

  12. Jeff, I always like your thoughts, but to speak of "the temporary role of Polygamy" is to put a spin on something that even a major league curve ball couldn't match. For more that 35 years, prophets, seers, and revelators spoke fervently of the temporal and eternal nature of the practice from the pulpit of the Salt Lake tabernacle. Because of the Journal of Discourses – even in the era of "follow the living prophet only" – the words are not going to disappear.

  13. "Considering the whomping the Church has taken over this issue, why hasn't the notorious D&C 132 been ammended? It wouldn't even take prophetic Revelation to at least amend the chapter heading, would it?"

    I suppose the church could do a lot of things to make our doctrines and practices more palatable. I'm not sure having faith was meant to be easy. Faith that is easily gained may be easily lost.

    I wonder if we asked the Lord about changing the scriptures, he may say something like this:

    What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same. (D&C 1:38)

  14. From what I understand it is even questionable that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage. Many of the people that said they were married to him said it after the fact, after they started practicing it in UT. It is well known that people in general during that time would make fibs or lies about history in order to support points of view on history. There's a whole book written on the subject by some people in the reorganized church (Church of Christ).

    Remember who makes history, people do, so it's impossible to know what is going on and we have to rely on the HG to tell the truth. History is pretty tough subject to know things accurately. History changes so much it's hard to know what the truth about anything is. Take FDR. Some people believe he saved the US economy, some people believe he ruined it. It's all a matter of opinion.

  15. "Take FDR. Some people believe he saved the US economy, some people believe he ruined it. It's all a matter of opinion."

    That's because it's a subjective statement, depends on what aspects you're looking at. Whether Joseph Smith had multiple wives is not a subjective issue. It's a factual issue. One can argue that people aren't telling the truth about his multiple wives but as far as I'm aware most LDS apologists don't even try to defend that position as there seems to be a lot pointing in the direction that he DID have multiple wives.

  16. So if polygamy was simply a numbers game then why not discontinue the doctrinal idea of it being in the works after it was disbanded. Why are women still to this day allowed to be sealed to one man only, yet men can and sometimes are sealed to multiple wives. That doesn't make sense to me.

    I know for my grandmother this was a source of huge contention and led to her leaving the church (judge her as you wish, for some this may seem a petty/insignificant reason) because her originial husband she had been married to for only a few months when he passed on. She then met her husband (my grandpa and the one she's been with for the last 50+ years and could not be sealed to him. If I understand the details correctly she even requested that her sealing to the original spouse be annulled so that she could be sealed to my grandfather and this was denied by the church presidency. Had she been a male this would not have been an issue anyways. She would have been sealed to both of them.

    I've heard ideas that polygamy continues in the afterworld because of number discrepancies. This is very odd to me. It makes me wonder why this would be the case, why are men less likely to be righteous heaven worth individuals then females. Perhaps that's just the way it is though, who knows.

    I do think it's a bit odd that the church distances itself so much from polygamy. I realize that it can't legally continue to practice it (which I honestly don't get. I don't understand why the heck the government has any decision on what people decide is a 'marriage' as long as it doesn't involve minors being forced into something. "Want to marry 6 women or someone of the same sex, go for it! Why should that be anything the government decides") I look at the fundamentalist church and it feels like I'm glimpsing the LDS church through a time machine. Now the church tries to act as though god commanded them to do this just for awhile because it was needed for a short period. I highly doubt that if one had a time machine and was to have a chat with Brigham Young that he would see it that way (if his sermons on the subject are anything to go by.)

  17. Anonymous and Megan bring news to me, that President Hinckley said of polygamy, "I condemn it, yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal." I agree with Megan that Pres. Hinckley might have just meant it is not correct to be practicing it at this time, not doctrinal to still be practicing it. There are no clarifying after-the-interview followups to tell us whether he meant that or whether he meant polygamy never was doctrinal. Did the Lord suffer Jacob and others to have many wives, even though it wasn't right? We often think of Jacob 2:24 when considering polygamy, and I think of it again upon hearing of President Hinckley's quote. "Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord." And, verse 26 says, "Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old."
    I and you do not know all, on polygamy, and I am sorry for those whose testimonies are troubled by it. It need not be so. Whether Jacob of old was justified in practicing it, we do not know, but we have the Book of Mormon suggesting David and Solomon shouldn't have done so, which makes us wonder about Jacob. If prophets of old wrongly practiced it, and yet we have no question they were prophets and the Church back then was true, then so it might be of the 19th Century. Keep your testimonies on this one, and don't let them go without cause.

  18. Jeff, Thanks for opening this topic up to discussion. It's not a pleasant one to think about, but pushing it under the rug doesn’t seem helpful either. In reference to why polygamy was practiced you wrote "Not that this was the reason–we don't know what it was"

    I agree we don’t know ALL of the reasons behind polygamy, (or behind many other commandments for that matter), but the scriptures do explain in clear language at least one of the reasons for the limited practice of polygamy during mortality. Maybe we shouldn’t think of it as THE reason, it certainly doesn’t by itself explain some of the implementation practices in Joseph Smith's time, but never the less it is plain and it is in our scriptures. Just after rebuking the people for practicing polygamy and explaining how much God abhors the practice, Jacob in the Book of Mormon, quotes God as saying "For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people [referring to taking plural wives]; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things." Jacob 2:29

    In case anyone is wondering, yes this verse is in the original 1830 version of the BoM, I just double checked before making this post.

  19. Note the reason for commanding polygamy wasn't just to populate the earth, but specifically to raise seed UNTO God, implying they would be faithful people. I also find it interesting that in this reference the Lord speaks of himself specifically as the "Lord of Hosts”. Images come to mind of the hosts of missionaries who were and are sent to bring souls from all lands unto him. I would be interested to see statistics on how many faithful members today can trace their roots back to polygamy, either being offspring of polygamists themselves (I fall under this category) or who were introduced to the gospel by someone with a polygamist genealogy or who was born in the covenant because an ancestor heard the gospel from such a person.

    It is impossible from our vantage point to say what the church would look like today if it hadn’t have been for polygamy, (it could be argued it would actually be larger and stronger without the disturbing history) but judging by this verse it would seem that the practice was used by God because he knew it would grow the church in both faithfulness and numbers.

    This reason still leaves a number of questions for me unanswered but goes a long way in explaining the overall reason. Other reasons, like you and others have mentioned here, also help clarify things a bit. Thank you to everyone who has contributed their thoughts on this difficult subject, and sorry for being long winded.

  20. maybe I should clarify, I am not the direct offspring of polygamists, it was my great great great grandparents ( think I have the right number of greats here) who were Mormon polygamists.

  21. @mkprr,
    You're right that it would be impossible to say what it would be like had Polygamy not happened. I think maybe I'm not understanding something in you question about tracing roots to polygamist ancestors. If a large percentage of LDS members were engaged in plural marriage at that time then you'd have a significant percentage of members today tracing their heritage back to polygamy. It's sort of like saying, "How many mormons can trace their roots back to early members of the church?" It doesn't really tell us much.

    Your logic seems sensible to me though that if god exists and he ordered smith to institute polygamy (and not tell anyone about it, and deny it when asked about it) that this could be a reason and the scripture you quote would seem to support this.

    I personally could not care less if people pracitice polygamy. It seems sort of gross/weird to me with the culture I'm in/from but I don't really see what the big deal is about it unless there are abusive relationships involved. If some man want's multiple wives and they're down with it, or if some woman wants multiple husbands and they're cool with it then why does anyone care?

    I have way more confusion wrapping the idea that a god exists around my head then I do that such a being would command people to have plural marriage (I guess it's sort of one sided plural marriage but if that's what the omnipotent creator of the universe really wants to see then I guess I can't really argue. There are claims of Smith having taken women as wives that were already married to other men. That to me seems a bit more disturbing because it would seem that in such a case he would be trampling on the rights of other men and I know that I for one would not be very happy if some dude tried to marry my wife. Perhaps those stories are incorrect though.

  22. As a side note, mkprr, does this scripture justify the continuing plural marriage that goes on due to temple sealing? I just have a hard time buying it when the church says it's in the past yet even today if I'm sealed in the temple and my wife dies I can be sealed to another woman. That doesn't make sense to me unless plural marriage is (as it would seem to be implied and some prophets of old have indicated) an integral part of the afterlife. It seems to be insinuated that there are lots of worthy women that never get sealed in the temple, but isn't that equally true from men? Maybe it isn't. Maybe every worthy male is already sealed to a woman and there are tons of leftovers that need to be hitched up to these already married individuals, but I've definitely come ac cross women that are frustrated with the setup because they've lost a husband and can't be sealed to their new husband. this problem doesn't exist for male members of the church and I don't really get why that is the case.

  23. Matthew,
    Yeah before jumping into a study to find out how many faithful Latter Day Saints polygamy produced I would need to rework the input data.

    The command to stop polygamy in this dispensation seems to be because of the difficulty it was causing everyone who practiced it and those difficulties aren't there if you only have one living spouse at a time. Also I think, polygamist relationships were for eternity except when a man married a widow of a faithful man who had already been sealed to his wife. As far as the reason for polygamy in the afterlife, it seems that the same reasons for why it was practiced in mortality would apply. See D&C 132:37 and v 63.

    While reading carefully through D&C 132 I found 3 more reasons for why the Lord commanded polygamy. Jacob of course makes it clear why the Lord doesn’t usually command polygamy and it should be noted that in D&C 132 the Lord compares it to when he commanded Abraham to kill Isaac. This might be in part because it is something that goes against what is normally right.

    Here are the reasons I found in D&C 132 other than to raise up righteous children to God:
    1. To prove his people as he did Abraham v 36-37
    2. That those who have adulterous husbands can leave and be with someone faithful to the Lord. V 43-44
    3. To fulfill the promise that the faithful will be made “ruler over many” v 44

    If I were coming from a naturalistic point of view none of these reasons would make any sense. Coming from a believer’s perspective the 3rd reason still doesn’t make any sense but the other two do.

  24. Was this "imbalance" ever given as a reason or justification for polygamy in the 19th century? Sounds a little like revisionism to me.

  25. @mkprr,
    That's a succinct explanation. Yeah. #3 seems really odd and a little messed up because this "righteous ruling over many" only works for males (in this context anyways.)

    Again, I don't fault the church for practicing polygamy. If that's what god wants then I guess there's not much point in arguing it. It wouldn't be any weirder then a lot of the other random things he has commanded (Abraham and Issac.) It seems weird though that the church tries to distance itself from something that it still, in a way, continues. Why don't they just say, "due to the laws of the land which we completely abide by and respect, the LDS church does not currently condone polygamy during this earthly life but believe it to be an integral part of the eternal life." To me that idea that LDS members will be sealed to multiple wives in the hereafter isn't any odder then the idea that righteous islamic followers will get a harem of women in the afterlife, so I don't get why the church distances itself from what it when, 1.) seems to still see polygamy as important and 2.) it's such a constant question from people outside of the church.

    The only reason I can think of (unless god really sees the practice of marrying multiple wives as 'bad' in our day and age and the concept of being sealed to multiple women in the hereafter as 'good', which I'm not him so maybe that is how he does things) is that the church really desires to be seen as a 'normal' church and integrate into mainstream Christianity. Sort of like how prophets today are all clean shaven and wearing suits and many of the early ones (and Jesus himself if the depictions are correct) are all rather scraggly looking robust mountain man sorts of figures with luxurious beards and cool clothes.

    It seems odd to me that the lord tends to 'command' the LDS church to do things that the society around them has been putting a ton of pressure on them for (like allowing blacks to be seen as the same as members of all other elasticities until 1978, or with polygamy after there was tons of opposition that the church had been facing over the issue.)

  26. sorry, that should have been "ethnicity" not Ecclesiastes. 😛

    @ mike,
    I'd agree that one could make the argument that if smacks a bit of revisionism.

  27. revisionism I think would be difficult to argue since all of the original reasons in the scriptures imply an imbalance in the population of temple worthy priesthood holders to temple worthy women.

    I think however it can be argued that this isn't the only reason for polygamy.

  28. Wait, so things being imbalanced was the reason that Joseph Smith said he was commanded to start polygamy? I wasn't aware of this. It would definitely not be revisionism if that were the case.

  29. I think it would go a long way to be more precise in the way "sealing", "marriage", and "celestial marriage", are used in this discussion. Sealing does not only occur between two individuals, but often with parents and their offspring as a quote from a talk by Elder Hales of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles shows:

    "Another important ordinance is being sealed for eternity in celestial marriage. This covenant of marriage allows children to be sealed to their parents and children born in the covenant to become part of an eternal family."

    which can be found at

    In other words, one of the main reasons to bring up sealing is the sealing of all humanity together for time and all eternity. So even if you aren't directly sealed through marriage, we are all seeking to be sealed to everyone via familial ties, and as such we would be together for time and all eternity as a world wide family.

    No one knows the complete nature and role of marriage in the here after, and as one poster pointed out, our happiness will not be dependent on any one person, but on our ability to live eternally with G-d. As such, to make direct comparisons between things that are doctrinal in an eternal sense vs things doctrinal in an earthly sense is difficult, if not impossible. We do not know for sure, and caution is warranted when making such strong and stark comparisons. But hey, that's just my two cents.

  30. @ annon,
    That makes sense to me. It seems that it would be difficult to make distinctions on something like that.

    Out of curiosity, why to you write "g-d" instead of god? Was that a typo or was there a different reason for it?

  31. I have a hard time believing the arguments made by the book ""Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy" because even if you want to believe that hundreds of Mormons lied in their journals to support some sort of revisionist history, you can't refute their actions. Take a close look at the life of each member of the Anointed Quorum, especially the more prominent ones. Nearly every one had a plural wife during the Nauvoo era. Why would all these guys just up and start taking on new wives, especially given the social stigma such relationships had during that time? It's more acceptable today than it was then.

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